Alabama detours: Gilmer mystery and Piedmont history

May 6, 2013
We’d spent a couple hours ducking the rain and the merest hint of routine at Johnny Devere’s backwoods hideaway.  Roosters crowed, wrens sang and stories flowed. The time to go, alas, had come.
By the time we exchanged goodbyes, Johnny seemed to have warmed to my presence. Anthony had said he’s about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. I saw no evidence to the contrary.
We bounced our way out of the dirt driveway and back onto the Rabbit Town Road. Instead of turning left and heading south toward the 78 Highway, Evan hung a right. We gained altitude and plunged deeper into the Talladega forest. A couple miles later, he pulled over so we could get a good look at Terrapin Creek.
The rain had ceased for the time being, and we leaned against a railing and gazed into the tumbling, roiling water. The big creek ran high and frothy thanks to the buckets of rain that had fallen since our arrival in Tallapoosa. Not much was said. I allowed the thoughts to turn in my head and silently admired the Terrapin’s virility. The turbulence below only served to enhance to the peace up top.
When we returned to the car, we continued for another mile or so. We made a right and soon were climbing a steep, rutted path that dead-ended in an old graveyard. They must have known it was here, but I never asked. I guess Anthony wanted to tour the rows of bleached, careworn headstones and pay his respects to the inhabitants of Grimes Cemetery.
We walked, talked and gawked in desultory fashion.
The air was still heavy with a rheumy gloom. I wasn’t fully engaged. My thoughts were a few miles back on the Rabbit Town Road with Johnny Devere and Harl Baggett and their aversion to conformity. I wished I had the wits and courage to live such a life.
We encountered no ghosts, though Anthony’s interest was piqued by neighboring headstones marking graves for three folks named Gilmer. Jasper Gilmer and his wife, Lucy, shared the one on the right. To the left, I.N. Gilmer’s subterranean remains rested all alone.
Both Jasper and I.N. died on May 15, 1883, a circumstance Anthony found intriguing and perhaps a little mysterious.

INGilmer     jasper

What calamity, intimate or widespread, killed two Gilmers on the same day. Or could it have been pure coincidence? If not, what event landed Jasper and I.N. side-by-side resting places in Grimes Cemetery, Cleburne County, a mile west of Terrapin Creek?
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a good question.
The fate of the Gilmers became something of a minor obsession. I wanted to answer the question for Anthony, so I poked around in the Tallapoosa library and made a couple phone calls, all to little result.

May 10, 2013
Armed with no more than a few names and addresses, we headed back to Alabama on Friday afternoon in a quixotic quest for clues. I unplugged the electrical cord that tethered us to the rural charm of Chez Williams and fired up the Behemoth for the first time in a week. Our first stop was city hall in Heflin, the Cleburne County seat, where we came up empty. From there we hooked up with Route 9 and drove north for a half hour.
Soon the Behemoth was lumbering along North Main Street in Piedmont, Ala.
Upon cursory glance, little distinguishes Piedmont from the tatterdemalion parade of small towns strewn across the American continent. Tacked onto hastily drawn grids by 19th century speculators, most still wait for the boom times to arrive. Meanwhile, the paint flakes, the metal rusts and the Walmarts of the new capitalist order sink their claws ever deeper into the fabric of the local economy.
Piedmont can claim a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Rick Bragg), but even he moved away. We pulled over at the public library, which nearly always represents a safe haven for reason and decency. When there are no more public libraries in small towns, you’ll know America is obsolete.
I sat on the floor and paged through a heap of folders containing capsule histories on area families. I might as well have been looking for a thimble in a landfill.
Piedmont is a confusing place, geographically speaking. We were no longer in Cleburne County. Piedmont straddles Cherokee and Calhoun counties, and it has changed names more times than Steve Earle has changed wives.
First it was Hollow Stump, and frankly, civic fathers would have done well to stop there. Alas, Hollow Stump gave way to Griffen’s Creek, which in turn became Cross Plains in 1851. In 1870, its year of reckoning, it adopted the name Patona.
Patona translates from the Spanish as “clumsy-footed,” which may or may not be germane to the town’s fate.
Since 1888, it’s been Piedmont. Well, I took French in high school and college. And I’ve been a fan of Carolina country blues since stumbling onto Bruce Bastin’s “Crying for the Caroline’s” in the stacks of Pattee Library more than three decades ago.
Somehow I only just learned that “Piedmont” translates into “foot of the mountains.”
But I never heard of Alabama’s Piedmont until Anthony discovered the Gilmers.
But for one violent day, Hollow Stump/Griffen’s Creek/Cross Plains/Patona/Piedmont might have developed into one of the New South’s industrial showplaces.
As it was, the town’s historical arc took a wicked turn on July 11, 1870, a Monday boiling with bad blood. The trouble began with a fistfight at the train depot and ended with torches, hoods and a good, old-fashioned Ku Klux Klan lynching. When it was over, seven men were dead.
One of them was white. His name was William Luke, and he was a defrocked Methodist minister-turned-schoolteacher. A native Irishman, Luke came to Alabama from Canada in 1869 to teach at Talladega College. Before long he moved to a school for black railroad workers.
The school was the baby of the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, a precursor to the Southern Railway.
The railroad, it turns out, envisioned big things for Patona. This nugget was turned up by a union rubber worker named Gene Howard, who got turned onto William Luke’s story by a newspaper editor in 1978. Howard didn’t put it down until he’d finished “A Death at Cross Plains: An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy,” published in 1984 by the University of Alabama Press.
Howard discovered that a group of New York magnates had debarked a train at Patona’s Prior Station. They intended to locate their headquarters in Cross Plains, Patona or whatever the hell they chose to call it. Prominent among these men of influence was Franklin Hughes Delano, president of the railroad and uncle of the man who would became the only man to win four U.S. presidential elections.
The railroad wanted  a cheap, compliant labor pool to draw from, and Luke came south to assist in the effort. He’d been in town less than a year. The saga that ended his life, not to mention that of six black men, was ignited by fistfight at the railroad depot and a gun battle that left no one dead. Luke, along with four black men, was arrested and confined to the schoolhouse, where an ad hoc trial commenced, during which he admitted to selling pistols to black citizens. The proceedings suspended for the night, a seething mob of local Klansmen dragged Luke and his fellow prisoners from the school and gave them a torchlight processional to the edge of town. Then they hanged them from a roadside tree.
Luke’s primary crime was infusing blacks with the notion that they deserved equal treatment and wages. Even in his final moments, the hooded mob gave him special treatment, allowing him to write a farewell letter to his soon-to-be widow.

My Dear Wife:

I die tonight. It has been so determined by those who think I deserve it. God only knows I feel myself entirely innocent of the charge. I have only sought to educate the negro. I little thought when leaving you that we should thus part forever so distant from each other. But God’s will be done. He will be to you a husband better than I have been, and a father to our six little ones.  . . .

Your loving husband,

William

And that was that. Soon he dangled from a tree branch, his corpse casting an eerie shadow beneath a lush Alabama moon. Surprisingly, his untimely demise did not go unnoticed, even beyond the provincial boundaries of Cross Plains.
A newspaper in Selma, 170 miles to the southwest, reported a heavily skewed version of events. Due to the miracle of the telegraph, said story appeared in the July 12 edition of The New York Times. And lord does it make for some sensational reading. The headline alone is so spectacularly mind-boggling that it reads like a page out of “Our Dumb Century,” The Onion’s history of 20th century America.

“The War of Races in Alabama –Only a Few Negroes Shot–They Were, as Usual, to Blame.”

Only a few negroes were shot, and I’m pretty sure no satire was intended.
Oh hell, in case you think I exaggerate:

WarRaces

Yes, that headline ran in the New York Fucking Times, the doddering, power-addled Grey Lady of American journalism. The entire story is a wonder to behold. It carries a Patona dateline, but some crusty editor in Manhattan must have applied that righteously ridiculous headline.
The story reported the fight on the train and the gun-toting posse of black folk taking target practice at humble church folk. Other tidbits: “Over 100 negroes” were arrested and “a carpet-bagger named LUKE, from Canada, who is teaching at a negro school at this place, is under arrest as being the leader of the negroes in this murderous assault.”
Miraculously, it took the writer just two sentences to get from “Only one lady was slightly hurt” to the “murderous assault” that justified mass lynching.
Also:
“The white people are the masters of the situation, and will hold the negroes to a strict accountability for their insane folly.”
Luke, of course, would share in the accountability. His fate was revealed in the long, concluding paragraph:

On Monday night, a party of armed men took them from the Sheriff and hung them by the road-side. … Luke was given time to say his prayers, and a letter was written to his wife, which was found sticking on a post near where he was hung. The bodies were still hanging at noon yesterday. Everything was reported as quiet at the Plains.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer also ran the story. It’s headline was only slightly less inflammatory:

racewarphilly

Of course.
On the subject of “of course,” no one was ever prosecuted for the killings. You’ll find nary a mention of the insalubrious episode on Piedmont’s official website, though it does allow that citizens for some reason found the name Patona “most undesirable.”
Turns out the railroad men also found Patona undesirable. Cross Plains, too.  Franklin Delano and Co. were not impressed and voted to put their headquarters elsewhere, and left Cross Keys/Patona waiting around to die.
Which is were we found it in the spring of 2013.

*****
As for the Gilmers, who the hell knows? Locals call the area Oak Level, and it has a long history of volatile weather events. Floods and tornadoes, drowned mules and submerged rooftops. The place has it all. Did the restless Terrapin swell and rise in the wake of a nasty Gulf Coast hurricane and swallow a handful of Gilmers? Maybe.
Cleburne County also sits in the heart of tornado alley. Two monster twisters ripped through the area in the past 20 years alone, killing 22 people each. In March of 1899, a tornado reportedly killed seven people in the same house.
But, you know, maybe the Gilmers died in a hill-country feud. Maybe they killed each other in an internecine battle. Maybe they died of natural causes.
Nobody seems to know.
I have squandered many hours searching for a telling clue in the vast landfill of the Internet. This haphazard research has accomplished nothing. Not only does no one seem to know what killed them, nobody can say who the hell I.N. Gilmer was in the first place. There is plenty of genealogical data on Jasper Gilmer, but I.N. is a total cipher.
At first I figured they must be brothers. According to the headstones, I.N. was one year and two weeks older than Jasper. Born Sept. 27, 1858, Jasper was the last of five children born to George Washington Gilmer and his first wife, Juniah Buchanan. Census records reveal Jasper had brothers named Lemuel and William, and sisters Elizabeth and Mary. They say nothing of I.N. Gilmer.
George Washington Gilmer was born in Anderson, S.C. He bought property there in 1852. In 1855, something compelled him to sell it and move his growing family to Alabama. Family lore says he was killed during the Civil War. It has even be suggested that he deserted his post to check on his measles-riddled family and was shot before their eyes.
Jasper Gilmer married Lucy Jane Grimes, who apparently gave birth to a son prior to their marriage. An ancestry.com thread led me to Jeri Coppock, who descends from George Washington Gilmer and his second wife, Margaret Coppock.  Jeri said her great-grandfather, Lafayette Coppock, also perished on May 15, 1883, and might be buried in Grimes Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Jeri Coppock has been trying to unlock the Gilmer mystery for more than a decade. She hasn’t found a clue yet. She’s still searching, and hopefully her hard work is rewarded with a small breakthrough, and soon.

Speaking of floods, tornadoes and cutthroat capitalism, here’s a musical interlude from the Drive-By Truckers, who wear their Alabama roots on their shirtsleeves:

*******

Back on the floor of the Piedmont Public Library, I found interesting morsels of information on Gaineses and Gilleys and Gilmans and Gilmores and Glascos, but not a single Gilmer. This seemed a little strange, as a cluster of them live in and around Piedmont. And from here  it’s only a nine-mile trek over Dugger Mountain to Grimes Cemetery.
I shrugged my shoulders and rose to my feet, an act accompanied by the usual array of creaking, popping and cracking joints. We departed the haven of the Piedmont Public Library and headed for the home of Sally and Ken Gilmer out on Philadelphia Church Road, a street which owing to our shared roots had something of a propitious ring.
I steered the Behemoth east onto Ladiga Road. We rumbled past downtown Piedmont’s brick buildings, many of which sat unoccupied and forlorn. The grid soon gave way to ramshackle countryside. As we traveled Vigo Road, Talladega National Forest again rose before us green and hopeful.
We turned at Old Borden Road, a gently sloping country lane surrounded by fallow farmland and scrubby hills. In a minute we arrived at 67 Philadelphia Church Road. The Gilmer’s tidy trailer home was adorned by a colorful banner. Half-red and half-orange, it hung from the carport and welcomed wayfarers to “A House Divided.”
With only slight trepidation, I knocked on the front door. A woman soon appeared before us and gave us a friendly smile. Her fingernails glowed orange, making her auburn locks appear dull by contrast.
Sally Gilmer stood before us wearing an Auburn football jersey. Becky, never attuned to the rolling cycles of the mad, mad world of sport, asked if there was a game today. It was May 11. The Auburn baseball team was in Gainesville, Fla.
And we’d missed the spring football game already. Auburn held its annual spring scrimmage three Saturdays ago, and 83,401 zealots filled Jordan-Hare Stadium to get a look at new coach Gus Malzahn’s new-look team. Over in Tuscaloosa on the same day, Alabama’s spring game pulled in a mere 78,315. On the same Saturday, more than 160,000 Alabama football fans paid good money to get a glimpse of teams that wouldn’t play a game that counted for another four months.
By the way, those attendance figures ranked 1 and 2 for similar games across the nation. Down in Alabama, you never have to ask if anyone is ready for some football.
Sally Gilmer may know her football, but she didn’t know anything about Jasper or I.N. Gilmer. At least that’s what she said. Ken, who of course is a die-hard Crimson Tide man, was taking a nap. She said he probably wouldn’t be of much help in our quest.
We thanked her for the pleasant visit, and offered our best wishes for her Auburn Tigers. We returned to the road, marveling at the wonder of humanity and still at a loss for any information about Jasper and I.N. Gilmer.

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Posted in Alabama history and mystery, Changing face of America | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tallapoosa, 5-6-13: On to Johnny’s Place

From left, Evan Saxon, Anthony Williams and Johnny Devere.

Old friends: From left, Evan Saxon, Anthony Williams and Johnny Devere.

Rain is falling in Tallapoosa.
It has been falling for three days.
Back up the road at the Williams house, Audrey must be ecstatic. She loves nothing more than to sit on the screened-in porch and listen to the rain as it drowns out the monotonous hum of traffic passing by on 78 Highway.

But we weren’t going back to the house just yet. As we made our way off the Shealy spread, we ran into Evan Saxon, another one of Anthony’s buddies. Evan was on his way to Johnny Devere’s place over in Alabama, so we decided to tag along.
Somewhere between Fruithurst and Borden Springs, in a one-man no-man’s land carved out of the eastern fringe of the Talladega National Forest,
 Johnny Devere lives in a ramshackle trailer tucked beneath the wing of an unfinished barn.
Johnny Devere calls himself a hermit, and I guess he should know. He certainly looks the part. I’d heard quite a bit about Johnny already, and the prospect of a visit sent a jolt through me. I am fascinated by stubborn individuals who succeed, for better or worse, in living their lives beyond reach of the stifling tentacles of the corporate octopus.
Johnny’s place had come up in our chat with Terry. Anthony had taken his cousin out there not that long ago. Johnny had discovered an old hive full of ornery black bees wedged into a dilapidated building on the property, and this excited Terry’s sensibilities. Swarming in and around the hive were about 100,000 of the nastiest, most aggressive bees Terry had ever encountered. More than one of them found their way inside his protective headgear. He got stung 35 or 40 times before he walked away.
But that’s another story.
Soon we were back in Alabama, heading north on County Road 49. After about 10 miles, we veered left onto County Road 55, aka Rabbit Town Road. In another minute we were pulling into the dirt driveway that curled its way to Johnny’s trailer, which sat in a small clearing with the barn and not much else.
Johnny didn’t look overjoyed to see us. He had the gaunt, weary countenance of a Confederate general. Or maybe it was just the Army fatigues and slouch hat that made me think of Jeb Stuart.
He eyed me, the stranger in his midst, with suspicion. Things would get better, though. Evan rolled a joint, and Anthony passed out beers. It didn’t take Johnny long to loosen up and become at least indifferent to my intrusion.

Evan often brings his harmonicas along on the trip in an effort to tempt Johnny into playing harp again. Johnny reliably turns him down. At 65, he says he doesn’t have the wind anymore. Too many cigarettes, he says. 
“Life don’t bother Johnny,” is the way Anthony described his world view Saturday night when we were sipping Wild Turkey and paging through scrapbooks filled with photographs he’d taken over the years. I was intrigued by the shots of his youthful musician friends, who looked like a couple of cosmic cowboys from western Georgia.
Back then, Johnny and his partner, the equally carefree Harl Baggett, traveled the south in the latter’s 1968 Dodge Dart. They hit the road with a case of bulk oil in the trunk and no particular itinerary. They wandered for months and played dirt-floor honky tonks and juke joints from the Alabama hills to the Mississippi Delta. 

Harl and Johnny are kindred spirits. They started playing together when Johnny was 15 or 16. They don’t see much of each other these days, but their travels together are alive in the memories of their friends.
Neither wanted much in the way of material comfort. Neither seemed to care what anyone else thought.
“I’ve envied Harl and Johnny all my life,” Evan would say later, “because they did exactly what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Johnny would quit a job go to the woods and live for months, and we’d bring him a sack of potatoes or something. He’d kill a groundhog, a rabbit, or a squirrel, whatever it took to get by. Then when he came out of the woods, they would hire him back. Johnny was good at everything he tried. Still is.
“He was a salesman par excellence. He could talk a dog off of his hair.”

Johnny Devere, left, and Harl Baggett cut loose with twin harmonicas.

Johnny Devere, left, and Harl Baggett cut loose with twin harmonicas.

“The best music I ever heard in my life was when Johnny and Harl both got their harmonicas out, and one played melody and one played harmony.  It was the only time I ever heard ‘em play (harmonica) together, because one was always doing something else; Harl playing the guitar and Johnny on the bass tub or harmonica. It wasn’t something they practiced. One just started playing and the other joined in. It was great.” – Evan Saxon

There is a well-worn story which epitomizes the self-reliant insouciance that courses deep in the blood of men such as Harl Baggett and Johnny Devere. If it is apocryphal in places, it rings true in spirit. One long-ago morning a friend who ran a construction crew stopped by to see if Harl wanted to make some money. He had a big job on his hands, and there was plenty of work to go around.
Harl appeared at the door, heard the offer and then retreated into his kitchen. He returned a minute or two later and said, “Nah, I’m OK. I still got two cans of beans.”
That should be a song if it’s not. Two cans of beans and no worries.
Harl Baggett is a gifted musician and songwriter. Once a friend and bandmate suggested he move to Nashville or Memphis to court wider exposure. He just shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Some people want different things.”
He wrote a song called “10 Bucks a Skin,”  which is something of an homage to Johnny’s outdoor skills. Harl was a country artist who crafted baskets out of kudzu vines and sold them by the highway side, especially in the time leading up to Easter. He also made fiddles. He labored over them for months and before selling them for $30.
Johnny would kill three rattlesnakes in one afternoon and sell their skins for $10 a pop.
The sky above was a truculent mass of gray. We took cover on the barn porch a
s rain pounded down on the metal roof.
A bamboo thicket rose in our rear.
Empty beer cans and chickens had the run of the place.
A rooster crowed.
A bird sang a lilting melody.
Carolina wren, Johnny said matter-of-factly.
He is a throwback to a long-gone time. He has a closer relationship with nature, the old, wild, instinctive nature, than most Americans have had for two centuries. They say he imitates the call of a barred owl with such uncanny precision that he’ll have four or five owls yakking at each other in obstreperous fashion.
“The old-timers called them laughing owls,” he said.
He has worked many regular jobs over the years, but always left when routine started to make his skin twitch. He once worked at Smitty’s barbershop in Tallapoosa. Nominally, he was a shoeshine boy. Mostly he delivered white lightning.
“In those days, a lot of the barbershops had a place in the back where you could come in and take a bath,” Evan said. “Johnny Devere was a shoeshine man. They’d give him a basket back there and say, ‘go take it to so and so.’ And he’d take it over there and they’d give him a dollar. He made more money delivering liquor then he did shining shoes.”
Ah, Smitty the barber. Smitty used to cut Anthony’s hair. Until he came home one too many times with an uneven buzz.
“Ollie, he gapped it again,” Anthony’s mom Clara would holler at her husband.
Which brings to mind a memorable line delivered by Walter Brennan’s character in the film “Meet John Doe.”
“I don’t read no papers, and I don’t listen to radios, either either. I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don’t have to read it.”
Anthony handed out the last of the beer. Evan rolled another number. The rain continued to pelt the roof above our heads and the ground just beyond our feet. Not that anyone seemed to mind.
The insistent crow of a rooster cut through the thunder of the incessant rain. I asked Johnny how it was he came to embrace this lifestyle.
“I ain’t got no responsibility besides my dogs and my chickens,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing, I don’t want nothing. I’m richer than a lot of men. People say, ‘why you live out in the middle of nowhere?’ I’ll tell you why. I ain’t got no bills. I ain’t got no money.
“I got peace. I’m contented.”

**********

One more thing: Here’s a bit of Harl Baggett taken from the musical reservoir of Youtube. The first song, “Ain’t No Flat Tires in Heaven,” is another tale born of their road experience. Johnny explained that when they traveled in the old Dodge Dart, Harl would pull over at service stations and ask if they had any used tires. He’d pick them up for a dollar or two and store them in the trunk with the case of oil. When they got a flat, they’d put a new tire on and throw the old one in the ditch.

Posted in America in the 21st century, Old America | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tallapoosa, Georgia, 5-6-13: The Shealys of Shealy Road

Cousins Anthony Williams, left, and Terry Shealy in the latter's workshop.

Cousins Anthony Williams, left, and Terry Shealy in the latter’s workshop.

I’m having a hell of a time untangling the overgrown jungle of stories, anecdotes, tall tales and colorful characters that took root in my head during our 11-day stay in Tallapoosa, Ga., last May.
In an effort to begin to separate the tendrils, I return to Monday, May 6, 2013, when Anthony and I made a pit stop at Terry Shealy’s place on our way back from the Fruithurst Winery in Alabama.
Terry, Anthony’s cousin, is the son of Shorty and Etta Shealy. Etta was the youngest of John and Emma Clark’s 11 kids. Everyone here pronounces her name “Etter.” I visited with Etta once. It was during the fall of 2002, during my first visit with Clara Williams, her sister. Etta had suffered a stroke and had trouble communicating. I remember she liked sitting in a chair in the evening and watching her beloved Atlanta Braves on television as a breeze blew through a window screen.
When we pulled into town Friday morning, this was our first stop. I knocked on Terry’s door but got no answer.  We moved on to the cemetery at nearby Riverside Baptist Church, where we found Etta’s stone. Her death was news (I had heard nothing since Clara’s death on Aug. 26, 2009, 12 days after her 92nd birthday), though I was prepared to find out that Etta had passed away.
She made it to September of last year, when she died at 92 years and three months. She was the last surviving and longest living of all her siblings.

Clara and Etta back in the old days.

When they were the Clark girls: Etta, left, and Clara repose in the bosom of nature back in the old days.

Becky and I visited Terry’s 100-acre spread on Shealy Road back in 2003. Beefy, Anthony’s younger brother, brought us here. Keith Williams, aka Beefy, was a troubled soul. He treated us with unfailing kindness and generosity. When we arrived, we ate scupadines right off Terry’s lush vines and made the acquaintance of Bucky, his 3-year-old deer.
When I inquired about Bucky over the weekend, Anthony unleashed a mischievous smile, a smile which telegraphed an imminent story.
A couple years after our meeting, Anthony said, Bucky nearly killed Terry when he got a little too amped up during rutting season. Bucky gored Terry in the leg and threatened to overpower him.
There’d be no scupadines, no Bucky today.
A train whistle blew in the distance. I thought of Uncle Howard.
Anthony told me a story about Uncle Howard just last night. The Shealy family is a veritable mother lode of color. Howard was one of Shorty’s brothers, and therefore uncle to Anthony and Terry.
This ground we stood upon was once Uncle Howard’s place. He made the money. He bought this 100-plus acre spread.
Howard got drunk one day and tried to drive his old car over a railroad crossing at the same time a Southern Pacific freight was on the track. That was Uncle Howard’s end.
Shorty’s another story. A family legend, he’s one guy who didn’t really need a nickname. Born Herschel Cicero Shealy, Shorty was a wizard with an ax.
Trademark Camel cigarette dangling from his lips, Shorty could carve up a pig the way Tom Brady slices and dices NFL secondaries.
Ben Shealy was the paterfamilias. He had a leg shot off by revenuers and walked with a peg leg the rest of his years. He also had a harelip and a wife named Fanny. She was a full-blooded Cherokee. Nobody recalls or says much about Fanny except that she was mean.
Consequently, all of Ben and Fanny’s kids seemed to get away from home early. They had 12 of them. Shorty made off with one of his brothers when he was 10 and went to Gadsden, Ala., where he got a job pumping gas.
Anthony and I found Terry in his workshop, laboring over brood boxes. He is a quiet man. Friendly and soft-spoken, he seems to have quarantined all the color inside him. He has seen too much color in his days.
Terry and Anthony were in the same class in school. They were more brothers than cousins. Until they were 14 or 15, they were next-door neighbors. Terry lived on the opposite bank of the branch which runs headlong into 78 Highway from the house where Anthony grew up and lives today. Two creosote logs formed the simple footbridge they traversed a million times as kids.
“Terry and I would roam free,” Anthony said. “We would leave here and go across the highway and to the Tallapoosa River, all the way to through the woods.”
Shorty and Etta worked the day shift at American Thread, the cotton gin. Clara worked the night shift. Sometimes she’d go into work a little early and leave Terry and Anthony sitting on the steps outside.
One day, when they were about 6, they stumbled on their fathers and found them in an unusually good mood.
“Uncle Shorty also was a deacon down at Riverside,” Anthony said. “I can remember Terry and I coming around the shed out there, and there was Daddy and Uncle Shorty with a half-gallon jug. They were just ripping with laughter. Then we went and tried it, and, Oh Lord!”
If Terry doesn’t talk much, he says plenty. When he does talk, he speaks softly. His cadence is matter-of-fact. His bearing is tolerant, his eyes small pools of understanding.
Words flow from his mouth with slow and simple purpose, like water tumbling easily over river rocks on its way to the sea.
When we shook hands, something felt a bit funny. Oh, he said, I had a little accident in the shop last year. Sawed off a couple fingers. The doctor managed to save his ring finger with some nifty needlework, but he lost the pinky.
The course of his life had prepared him to greet such a calamity as a minor inconvenience.
On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, 2011, he was out in his yard tending to his bees when his peace was shattered by an unholy racket in the sky. He gazed up and saw a small airplane faltering near his tree line.
He watched as it banked sharply in the direction of his cornfield. He watched as it missed its mark, smashed into a giant maple, broke up and cartwheeled to the ground.
It burst into flames before his eyes. He ran toward the scene, where he encountered a man walking away from the wreckage. Alex Woliver, 24, was terribly burned but alert. His parents, 56-year-old Kim Woliver and 53-year-old Trish Woliver, were dead in the smoking remains of their Cessna 177.
Alex Woliver asked Terry if he might unbuckle his belt. The buckle was burning into his waistline. He was charred to the bone. Burns covered 90 percent of his body. Alex, who was close to getting his degree in mechanical engineering, died in an Atlanta hospital on the following Sunday.
The family was en route to Panama City, Fla., from Knoxville, Tenn.
When Anthony excused himself to go to the bathroom, I asked Terry about the wreck. I said, “That’s something nobody wants to see, to be the first person at an airplane wreck.”
The air between us filled with silence.
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing. Instead I looked down at my shoes, shook my head and muttered something under my breath about how fucked up that was.
Terry shrugged his shoulders.
“I was OK,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”
A lot worse than witnessing a plane crash and tending to a dying man, well, that lies in a realm somewhere beyond my imagination.
I kept my mouth shut.
My flabbergast couldn’t help but register with Terry. He briefly mentioned his time in Vietnam, where he served as a member of a search-and-destroy unit.
That’s were he saw things a lot worse than a live plane crash, two dead bodies and a dying man smoldering right in front of him.
His battle with post-traumatic stress is chronic. He manages it best he can with the coping techniques he has picked up along the way.
Primary among them are keeping busy and staying at home.
Bees are his therapy. He has more than 40 hives on his property. He was making frames for brood boxes when we showed up and interrupted him.
It’s his comfort zone. He doesn’t dare leave it for long.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was vacationing in, of all places, Panama City, Fla.
He hasn’t taken a vacation since.
“I’m a homebody,” he said. “And I don’t like change. At all. I don’t even like the furniture moved.”
So he’s OK. As long as he has his bees and their hives to occupy his time and his thoughts, he’s just fine.
Most of the time, that is.
When the Vietnam Moving Wall came to Tallapoosa in 1993, he decided to see it out of respect to his comrades. He soon wished he hadn’t. The experience was too much and sent him into a tailspin.
“I didn’t sleep for two months,” he said. “Now I don’t do anything like that. Period.”
The plane that crashed and burned and killed three people while he watched? He only suffered a couple of sleepless nights afterward.
I thought about the terrible images haunting his head, and his sweet and gentle nature. I couldn’t make it all add up in my head.
Then Anthony returned, and we said goodbye and headed back to Alabama.
Our day was just beginning.

 

 

 

 

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Notes from the Wasteland (and Fruithurst, Alabama)

Becky pauses for a pose among the muscadine vines at the Fruithurst Winery Company.

Becky pauses for a pose among the muscadine vines at the Fruithurst Winery Company.

It’s April 22, aka Earth Day.
(Editor’s note: It was indeed April 22, 2014, when I wrote the above sentence. The current date, according to the Gregorian calendar, is May 6, 2014. Of course, if you, in the tradition of all the Tsars of all the Russias, adhere to the Julian calendar, it is only April 23. So fret not, There is still time.)
I see Elin Nordegren is trending No. 1 on Yahoo. This news hits me like morning sunshine snaking through window blinds and makes my heartstrings dance like freshly illuminated dust motes.
In layman’s terms, I am embracing, however tenuously, hope. If the beautiful and famous woman Tiger Woods was married to until she notoriously was no longer married to Tiger Woods can befriend the beautiful and famous skier Tiger Woods is being carnal with nowadays, what lies beyond the realm of possibility?
Almost anything, I suppose. Almost.
Apparently it’s going to take divine intervention to save me from myself. Once I find a god I can develop a meaningful rapport with, self-actualization should be right around the corner.
I wrote the above blog “headline” in homage to my never-ending malaise. T.S. Eliot never entered my mind until it I beheld the words on the screen and thought, “Hey, it is April, after all. The world outside is flowering gloriously, so why should I resist the lure to bombast?”
I don’t know if April is the cruelest month. And I can’t offer anything apposite about The Wasteland, except I have always been dazzled by its opening paragraph.
I do find the wind-blown redolence of lilacs intoxicating. A more evolved sensibility (et tu, Mr. Faulkner?) might say their pungent aroma carries the rotten sweetness of corruption.
Nonetheless, I loved walking about the careworn streets of Bremerton or Tacoma during the early days of May and finding my senses overwhelmed by the unmistakable fragrance of the lilac. (Here in the northeast, lilacs normally bloom in accordance with Eliot’s imagery. They’re behind their time this year. In the Northwest, they don’t pop until May.)
When lilacs last in southeastern Pennsylvania bloomed, we frolicked on Florida’s Gulf Coast. I arose each morning and cleared my head with a stroll on the beach and a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. I spent the rest of the day writing frantically.
Seemed like I was headed somewhere.
Now spring is here, and I again mourn my ever-returning sense of doom.
It is my first Pennsylvania spring in more than 20 years. I tend to imbibe the bittersweet cocktail of memory and desire without due caution. It tantalizes the dull reaches of my hippocampus and makes me a fool all over again.
On the subject of roots in need of a good sprinkling, I had one of those experiences yesterday that temporarily jolts a body free of the shackles of complacency.
Max and I had walked to a nearby playground. On the way home we stopped at the library. As Max appraised vending-machine selections in the outer hall, a man exited the bathroom and entered the field of my peripheral vision. On his way by, he stopped and tilted his head in our direction. He screwed up his eyes, paused to allow recognition to coalesce in his mind and said, “is your last name Wallingford?”
He had me there.
I recognized him immediately as David V., the next-door neighbor of my ancient youth. For a couple years we were best friends. We played street hockey in the cul-de-sac at the end of his driveway. We watched Flyers games and complained about the Phillies.
We even talked politics. He seemed to form a world view early, and I was a ready disciple. I guess we were young conservatives.
My most salient memory from those days is a dubious one. One steamy day during the summer of 1978, with snot-nosed malice aforethought, we slipped inside his parents’ house and skulked to a room with a telephone.
We had hatched a scheme to get on big-city radio and deliver a powerful political message at the same time. Our phone call was inspired by the recent shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp. He was killed on Aug. 8, when the cops’ attempt to disarm the radical group MOVE, a collection of back-to-nature misfits who lived in a squalid compound of filth and fear in West Philadelphia, went horribly awry.
(MOVE, by the way, is almost entirely black. Officer Ramp was white. If you think race had anything to do with our little plan, you most likely are right.)
After we fine-tuned our carefully chosen editorial remarks, I furtively lifted the phone from its cradle and dialed the number for local radio station WWDB, which at the moment was airing a talk show hosted by Philadelphia broadcasting legend Frank Ford. He answered in congenial fashion, and I spluttered a line or two of adolescent vitriol. In accordance with the script, I averred the city’s best option for ending the MOVE standoff would be to blow the compound – rats, rabid dogs and little kids, too – to smithereens with the help of a Patton tank.
Of course we didn’t know the City of Philadelphia would actually put an equally insane plan into action before too long. City officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house in 1985, igniting a fire that reduced an entire block to ashes and killed 11 people, five of them children. At least we were just dumb teenagers with too much time on our hands.
It had been a long time. Damn long. By the end of high school, we had drifted in different directions. Dave, who graduated a year before me, joined up with Uncle Sam’s Army and became a Ranger or Green Beret or some similar warrior-specialist. I lost track of him, though once every 10 years or so we’d run into each other in the old neighborhood and engage in awkward conversation. Then my mom sold her house and that was that.
We had a nice chat this time, though. Old Dave has a pretty good memory. He recalled a conversation he’d had with my dad not too many years ago, from which he learned I was working on a book (Yet another unfinished project).
I winced. Everything fell into a rather bleak perspective. My dad died seven Aprils ago, four months prior to Max’s arrival.
Anyway, another seven years buried, and nothing to show.
At least not yet.
So I move on. Onward and backward. Again.
Now I head back to Tallapoosa, Georgia. It has been nearly a year since we arrived in the driveway of Anthony and Audrey Williams, which spills onto U.S. Highway 78.
In Georgia, they call it 78 Highway. The perpetual whoosh of traffic is the soundtrack to the days and nights on their porch. “Waves of economy,” Anthony calls it.
I love the way they talk. I had met Anthony once before, though I don’t think I could’ve picked him out of a police lineup. Once we’d parked the Behemoth into their driveway, it stayed there for 11 days.
It was the most fertile period of the trip. It was also the place where the narrative fell apart. I never got it back together again. There was so much, too much, it overwhelmed my poor power of organization.
I’m going all way back in an effort to come forward one step at a time.

The Fruithurst railroad depot.

The Fruithurst railroad depot, from Wayne Ruple’s “Cleburne County.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013: Fruithurst, Alabama

In his quest to expose me to the region’s every crevice, notch and gopher hole, Anthony brought me to the Fruithurst Winery yesterday. From the Williams homestead on 78 Highway in Georgia, it’s a short jaunt over the Tallapoosa River and into the Central Time Zone and then up County Road 49. As we plunged into the eastern Alabama countryside, the piney woods rose before us.
Inside the doors of Fruithurst Winery Co., Anthony recognized the woman behind the tasting bar as Vicki Laminack. She’s the mother and aunt, respectively, of co-proprietors Joshua and Dylan Laminack.
Vicki lives in Alabama, but she’s a Tallapoosa girl through and through. You can tell by the company she keeps. She grew up with a father named Bunk, then married a fellow named Chicken. Cleon “Bunk” Thompson ran the Tasty Treat, a Tallapoosa institution, for a decade or two. Chicken and Bunk. Scratchy and Beefy.
This is a place where names are applied at birth and then quickly forgotten.
“What did I tell you?” Anthony said with his muscadine-sweet drawl. “Smm-mmall town.”
Running into Vicki Laminack in Fruithurst, brings a smile to Anthony’s face. This is not a rare feat. The sun rising in the morning brings a smile to his face.
You name it, and he smiles. Wild Turkey and homemade wine, sunshine and rain. A pint jar of moonshine that left Tallapoosa in 2003 and now had made an expected and thoroughly unlikely return a decade later.
Even recalling the car wrecks his parents took him and his brothers to witness when they were just boys, even this makes him smile. (I suppose each represented a valuable lesson in the unpredictability of life and the wages of sin.
On our way back into Georgia yesterday, Anthony recalled a couple of these object lessons. First was the time an 18-wheeler (they call them transfer trucks down here) took the approach curve too fast, careened out of control and pinned a luckless flagman against a bridge berm. Anthony remembers what time the accident occurred, because the deceased man’s watch had stopped at 2:17 p.m.
Then there was the Sunday morning wreck that Clara and Ollie Williams figured might deliver a more powerful message than a run-of-the-mill sermon at Riverside Baptist Church.
“This bridge was a two-lane bridge with an iron berm in the middle,” Anthony said. “A man had got hit on this side of the bridge. They found one of his shoes on this side of the bridge; they found another shoe on the other side, and he was rolled up like a ball. His legs was over his shoulder, his head was turned sideways.”
He shook his head and smiled with wonder.
“Why would my mother …?” he began before letting the thought expire. “It was my mother!”

Vicki Laminack shows off the wares of the Fruithurst Winery Company.

Today, Becky and I returned to Fruithurst. At Anthony’s insistence, we got there in his pickup.
The Fruithurst Winery renaissance is unfolding in a place locals call Rosewood, which sits about six miles north of Fruithurst proper, which lies at the confluence of U.S. Highway 78 and County Road 35. It is a dusty oasis on the road from Atlanta to Birmingham.
The first white settlers called it Summit Cut, or Summit Gap. By the final decade of the 19th century, when northern entrepreneurs imagined it as a seed-bed of world-class wines, the smattering of Scotch-Irish who farmed this sleepy crossroads called it Zidonia.
For the most part, the men who dreamed up Fruithurst came from the Chautauqua region in western New York, which was and remains Concord grape country. They were serious people, and they didn’t mess around.
By 1894, they had set their plan in motion. Soon, the landscape was transformed. More than 3,000 acres were planted with more than 100 grape varieties. A battalion of blue-collar workers made their way to eastern Alabama. They came from all corners of the United States and Europe to prepare the ground, plant seeds, tend vines, pick grapes and more. (Pickers, by the way, made 30 cents a day.)
For those fortunate enough to get by without engaging in manual labor, there were amenities aplenty. Fruithurst even had an 80-room hotel, complete with bowling alley, billiards room and barber shop.
By 1898, when 23,000 gallons of wine were produced, and the model town of Fruithurst had bloomed to include more than 800 residents.
It seemed the dreamers’ dream was coming to fruition.
Alas, Fruithurst’s heyday turned out to be short-lived. Two decades after it boomed, it went bust in spectacular fashion. Myriad forces conspired to doom Fruithurst. When things went wrong, they went wrong in spades.
Fire was a constant nuisance. Two wineries burned to the ground. So did an excelsior mill, which produced wood shavings used in the packaging of wine bottles, and a planing mill.
Natural blight and unnatural fervor were the main culprits in Fruithurst’s demise.
The first came in the form of Pierce’s disease, which troubles California winemakers today. Spread via the efforts of a cicada-like pest called the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the Pierce bacterium savaged Fruithurst’s vineyards.
Even bigger trouble was brewing 125 miles away in Montgomery, where Alabama lawmakers under the influence of temperance zealots prepared the death blow.
They had worked for four years to return statewide prohibition after the 1909 liquor ban was repealed in 1911. They finally succeeded in 1915. Alabama’s “bone dry” law, passed over the veto of new governor Charles Henderson, banned making or selling anything that “tastes like, foams like or looks like beer,” as well as the sale of any drink in a bottle that resembled a whiskey flask.
It took a few years, but one by one, Fruithurst’s wineries died on the vine. By the time the Depression hit, Fruithurst’s wine boom was a fading memory. It continued to fade for the better part of a century.
You can read some of Wayne Ruple’s chapter and see some wonderful photographs of old Fruithurst here.

Vicki Laminack relaxes while giving us the grand tour of Fruithurst Winery.

Vicki Laminack relaxes while giving us the grand tour of Fruithurst Winery.

Seven generations
Fruithurst’s wine renaissance began in the fertile, no-nonsense head of Joshua Laminack.
Vicki Laminack’s only son is as serious as any of his grape-growing forebears, and he is the driving force behind the winery. A Delta Airlines pilot, Joshua Laminack is a consummate man of business. He doesn’t even drink wine, a fact I found kind of disappointing.
Not that he lacks a sense of humor. Vicki says he likes to share this nugget with visitors: “We’re the seventh generation of Laminacks to make alcohol, and the first to do it legally.”
Just 33, he’s never met a problem he didn’t figure he could outwit or outwork.
“He’d butt heads with the devil himself,” Vicki said. “Joshua is never satisfied with anything. His goal is to make this farm profitable so everybody can stay home and run the farm and not have to travel to work.”
His cousin, Dylan Laminack, makes the wine. He is the resident artist, a kilt-wearing giant with a gentle demeanor. His day job is tuning and moving pianos. Now he’s a certified oeonologist with a degree from the University of California Davis.
Unlike his partner, Dylan’s not above sampling the fruits of his labor.
“He was back there one day and he was singing to high heaven, and it’s like a free concert back there,” Vicki said. “After a while he comes out and says, ‘it’s a hell of a day when you get paid just to get drunk.’ He’s a doozer.”
Neither of the Laminack boys were around during our visit, but Vicki more than held her own. She was a delightful and generous guide.
Unlike their Fruithurst predecessors, the Laminacks limit their vineyards to a single grape, the muscadine. They planted their first seeds in 2005 and sold their harvest to wineries and produce outlets.
But Joshua had a better idea.
“One day, as the story goes, they were in the field workin’ and Joshua says, ‘Cousin you can make wine; why can’t we just have a winery?’” Vicki said. “And Dylan says, ‘the county’s a dry county, and we can’t just have a winery in a dry county.’
“And Joshua says, ‘well, we can change that.’”
And so they did.
They collected signatures and support for two years, and in 2008 Cleburne County voted to turn wet.
“The night of the election they had this building built already and they had juice frozen,” she said. “They celebrated the county turning wet by starting to thaw their juice. And it just snowballed from there.”
They harvested more than 74,000 pounds of muscadines in 2012 and bought another 10,000 pounds. They made more than 6,000 gallons of wine in all.
“We only sell out of this front door,” she said. “So far they’ve not been able to grow enough fruit, make enough wine that we don’t run out of muscadine wine by about September.”
I’m no wine critic. All I can say is their wines are tasty. And we tasted every damn wine the Fruithurst Co. had to offer.
We’d had our share of fun. On the way we fell under Vicki’s sway. She’s a down-to-earth human being and a delightful guide. Not a drop of pretense in her body.
We stumbled outside, the Alabama sunshine falling on our faces like a holy benediction. We traipsed tipsily about the vineyards and soaked in the good vibrations.
When we returned pick up our wine purchases, Vicki had a ready lagniappe for us.
“I’ve enjoyed y’all so much, here’s you some grits,” she said.
Here’s you some grits.
I neglected to mention that they also sell grits. Chicken’s Grits. There is, of course, a back story.
“Johnny (aka Chicken) had an old stone,” she said. “He’d had it for years. His boss bought an old mill in Cleburne County and gave him another stone. Well, he was gonna put it all together in a little grist mill and just kind of play with it. Not with Joshua. You don’t play for anything around Joshua. If he sees a dollar sign in it, you’re going to do something with it. So he started grinding the grits and corn meal so now we sell them here in the store and we also sell them at a supermarket in Heflin. That just tells you a little something about Joshua. You don’t do nothing for fun around him.”
If you’re ever find yourself on the road from Birmingham to Atlanta, stop by the Fruithurst Winery. Get you some wine. It’s a lot of fun.
They have a tasteful, intimate operation going on here. And I did I mention the wines are tasty? One even captured a gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
Nonetheless, Vicki says you shouldn’t expect the Laminack boys to become wine snobs anytime soon.
“The boys really went to make good wine, and they want to have a good business, a good reputable business, but as far as foo-fooing with all the foo-fooers, they’re just not interested,” she said. “They just want to make a living, an honest living.”
Yes indeed. To hell with the foo-fooers, y’all.

 

 

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Welcome to Circle C Market, Cody, Nebraska

Feb. 24.
It was Feb. 24. Then I turned around and it was Feb. 26.
Already Feb. 27.
Nay, March 6.
Editorial update: It’s March 30. Enough said.
Not so long ago, things were looking up. I had turned an imaginary corner in my tortured, half-century war with myself.
Turns out there’s always another wall.
Today (March 6), seeking resuscitation, I walked three miles into a gentle but unsettling wind to make my long-delayed return to the Paoli House of Bitterness. Thank the devil almighty for the cozy winter gloves Becky’s sweet mom gave me for Christmas last year. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees, and the sun was shining, but it was damn cold. My fingers would’ve been screwed without those gloves.
I hadn’t wanted to walk; I wanted, as always, to have walked. In some corporate pharmacy somewhere, I read that walking helps lower blood pressure.
Becky offered me a ride. I declined. She mocked me for my insistence on shuffling into the late-February gloom, but I knew I’d feel better about myself when I got to Paoli.
Only this time I didn’t.
My pedestrian triumph was Pyrrhic. Fortuna had a nice, little chortle at my expense.
I trudged to the Paoli office of the world’s most ubiquitous peddler of overpriced coffee, dodging cars on Route 30 because I refused to traverse the blackened hillocks of ancient snow that left the sidewalks impassable, only to find a note taped to the door informing me that, much to the regret of management, the shop had closed due to a mysterious power outage.
I muttered “fuck,” turned around and began walking in the direction from which I’d come.
I might have taken a train to Exton or Devon, which the author of the note suggested I do.
But I’d come too far to not turn back now.
Why do I walk? Is it just Luddite sentimentality? Perhaps. The anachronistic, bipedal mode of transportation just seems to suit the cinematic loser of my imagination (a character I merged into long, long ago).
Mostly, I like to imagine the curiosity I inspire in everyday folk who pass by in their Lexuses and Mercedes as I shuffle in and out of their vision, my 51-year-old, broken-down corpus hunched forward, its considerably more-athletic-looking shadow lurking behind, shoulders sagging beneath overstuffed pack and nose pressed into a book as if I were some 19-year-old traipsing through a tree-lined college campus.
Which reminds me of a Quincy Jones quote I came across in The Seattle Times one day while on a ferry to Seattle in 1997:
“Inside every 60-year-old man is a 19-year-old boy saying, ‘What the hell happened to me?’”
I was 34 then, closer to 19 than 60. Things change in a hurry. Time is a steamroller from hell.
At least the breeze was at my back now, and the return walk passed without undue mental anguish. I holed up at the Easttown Public Library.
Now I turn back to Cody, Nebraska, a town too tough to die.
In addition to Ron Schneider, who took it upon himself to be my personal tour guide, there is the Circle C Market.

****

July 12, Cody, Neb. – Yesterday afternoon, after a visit with Ron Schneider at his Sinclair gas station, we crossed Highway 20 on our way to Circle C, the little store Cody hopes can triumph over unenviable odds. The sun, fat and intemperate, hung above us like a tangerine lollipop that had lost its stick.
The Circle C Market sprang to life in a simple, one-story building that sits astride a flat patch of land between the Cody park and U.S. 20. It oozes the idealism and insouciance of youth.
As we approached the front door, we were greeted by a woman in a Nebraska Cornhuskers T-shirt. Her smile, flagrant with Midwestern goodwill, washed over us like a benediction. Then she held the door open until we crossed the threshold.
Becky whispered, “she’s in the film.”
“She” is Tracee Ford, who teaches Spanish and art at Cody-Kilgore School.
Roughly 80 attend Cody-Kilgore in grades 7 through 12. They come from all corners of a sprawling, sparsely populated landscape. It is a rolling sea of tallgrass prairie and lowing cattle. The Cody Kilgore Unified School District serves an area spanning two time zones, three area codes and 533 square miles.
More than four years ago, Ford commanded a desk at a student fair with fellow teacher Stacey Adamson. As idle chit-chat gave way to daydreams, they considered what might be done about Cody’s seemingly intractable stagnation.
With the railroad long gone, the population here went into a freefall after World War II before leveling off around 150 at the dawn of the new millennium.
Ford and Adamson each had tried to recruit new residents only to fail miserably. The shared similar frustrations. When they touted Cody’s comfortable pace of life and its Leave-it-to-Beaver aura of unlocked doors and trusted neighbors, outsiders invariably listed the lack of a grocery store as a primary impediment to moving in.
The nearest supermarkets, Scotty’s Ranchland Foods and Henderson IGA, are in Valentine, a 38-mile drive east on U.S. 20. When people around here talk about going to town, they’re talking about Valentine.
Neither takes credit for the birth of a notion. Instead, Ford and Adamson recall the moment that led to Circle C as a shared epiphany.
“We said to ourselves, ‘we need a grocery store,’ ” Ford said.
That was the seed that blossomed in this Sandhills village in the spring of 2013. The Circle C Market sits in the shadow of hulking structure which once served as Cody’s grain elevator and now is a halfway house for neighboring crows and bats. It is constructed with straw bales and sided with brown stucco.
While students rang up sales, we adjourned to an adjacent classroom. Ford’s eyes flashed to life as she talked about the Circle C. Light sneaked through the blinds and threw a shadow ladder at our feet. She says she’s always been a dreamer.
“I’m an idea person,” she said. “My husband always shakes his head and say, ‘you need to come back down to earth.’ This is the first big idea I’ve had that I’ve seen come true.”
She’s seen more than that.
She’s seen remarkable transformations and personal rebirths. Students written off as unreachable snapped to life in the face of real-world challenges. Alienation gave way to enthusiasm. Kids who previously had no use for school threw themselves into the project with surprising gusto. They cut up straw bales and hammered nails.
Students took ownership of the fledgling market. They drew up business plans and developed marketing strategies. They applied for grants and building permits. They designed an appetizing website.
Then they trained their determination on state officials.
The state, which owns the land, refused to lease it for the project. Student emissaries traveled to Lincoln to deliver a presentation. Impressed officials had a change of heart and extended the school a 99-year lease.
The community fell in behind them. Teachers went out into the Sandhills and pried contributions out of ranchers. Town fathers landed a USDA grant to help build the store. Students scored a rural development grant for equipment and educational necessities.
The kids manage every aspect of the store. They ring up customers, stock shelves and place orders from vendors.
“They’ve gotten to experience things they never would’ve done before,” Ford said. “For me, that’s the best part.”

******
At long last, Mary Van Winkle is home.
She grew up seven miles east of Cody in Nenzel, a roadside abstraction against which Cody seems like a small metropolis. She graduated from Cody-Kilgore in 1979.
Nowadays, Nenzel boasts a population of 20. It was 28 when she was a child, and her family accounted for half of it.
Nenzel once held the distinction of being the smallest incorporated town in Nebraska. Her father owned Dick’s Bar on Main, and the family lived in an attached residence.
Her grandfather was mayor for 63 years, serving until his death in 1992. Her great-grandfather was a Nenzel.
Van Winkle arrived home on March 4, her first day on the job as manager/advisor for the students who are the lifeblood of the Circle C.
She appears to be a perfect fit for the role. She has long been a champion of lost causes and rank long shots. She’s old enough to have lived through the June 1962 tornado that flattened little Nenzel.
“My family lost their home,” she said. “My folks purchased the local bar that same year. I’m a bar brat. I grew up in a bar, literally. My dad built the house right onto it. And I say that really with great pride. Because that’s reason I am who I am today, because I lived in the public from the time I was little.”
The market represents more to her than just a job or a quixotic experiment. It is symbolic of a way of life.
“Either you decide you want to fight for the way you want to live or you watch it go by the wayside,” she said. “That is what this is all about.”
She is the youngest of 10 children. She is flush with a sense of community, one deepened by two decades working on nearby Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
I asked about life on the rez, and she responded with a quiet defiance.
“Economically speaking, yeah, it’s sad,” she said. “You know the problems, they’re very apparent. But they’re very kind and generous people for the most part.
“If you’re just passing through and look, sure, you’re going to see the alcoholism, the drugs, the torn-up houses, the broken-down cars. That’s what the surface shows, but it doesn’t tell you about the people. It’s just so different from the white man’s world, in terms of what’s of value. Family is first and foremost, always.”
She’s never been one to take the easy way out. When she lost her job on the reservation, she found a job as a social worker in long-term care. She worked as a 911 dispatcher and did the books for the town of Kilgore. All while attending school.
Before Circle C lured her home, she worked as a nursing-home administrator in Ainsworth, 82 miles east of Cody. It was a good job, but it wasn’t home.
“It’s hard to explain to people that haven’t grown up here, but it’s in your blood,” she said. “Like any place that’s home.”
The store opened its doors on April 29. Almost a month later, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman came to town to celebrate the grand opening.
The plans for the store transcend supplying Cody residents with staples.
“We kind of forget this ourselves, we’re so caught up in getting the grocery aspect going, but it’s actually a store and an entrepreneurial center,” she said. “And the next piece of this is to bring forth that part of it. We want to feature local trades people, craftsmen, any locally done items, we want to figure out how we can incorporate that.”
Reservations? She had a few. None were big enough to deter her.
“My dad used to have this saying, ‘Nenzel is where two fools met.’ That’s the way I feel about this market.
“It was so important for me to come home. On my first day, I walked up to the school and Tracee was the first to great me. She came running down the sidewalk of the school going, ‘You’re here! You’re here!’ It’s not every day you’re greeted to a job like that.”
Like Ford, she has been overwhelmed by the way students have thrown themselves into the project.
“That’s where my heart is, with the students,” she said. “I just want them to know the world is just as open to them as anyone else. You just hope you show them they’re more than capable and that you believe in them.”

 

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Cody, Nebraska: Ron Schneider’s wild ride

Editor’s note: This story is based on a conversation I had with Ron Schneider at his gas station in Cody, Neb., on June 12, 2013. My feeble memory was aided immeasurably by Schneider’s first-person account, which I stumbled upon while wandering the Internet.

*****

The day began in ordinary fashion. The sun came up on schedule and suffused Nebraska’s Sandhills with a bewitching glow.
Ron Schneider got dressed, ate breakfast and went to work. He arrived at his gas station a little before 7.  He’s sold gas and repaired cars in Cody since 1970.
The day dawned cool and clear and unremarkable, like thousands of other days Schneider has seen around here. Not that he didn’t have anything on his mind.
Mostly, he thought about his heart. He had returned from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the previous day.
The news wasn’t good. His heart was a shambles. He had just three chambers, and the septum between the upper chambers was about gone. It was, in his words, “hanging there in rags.”
He hoped to qualify for a transplant but wouldn’t find out for months.
It was Saturday, March 24, 2007. The usual gang gathered at the back table in Schneider’s shop to play cribbage and talk trash. Schneider had a luckless morning, losing three times in three games.
Things were about to change, so much so that probably the most remarkable thing thing about the day was that Schneider was still alive to eat lunch.

**********

Cody, a windswept relic of about 150 people, sits a few miles from the South Dakota border. It seems like it has been bypassed by time. The economy might be on the ropes, but trust in your fellow man’s decency is alive and well.
Homes are left unlocked, unless you’re going out of town for an extended trip. Cars are unlocked, too, with the keys left inside.
At Schneider’s Sinclair station at 420 W. U.S. 20, you needn’t pay prior to pumping gas. Simply fill up and pay when you’re done.
It might seem quaint, but that’s how they roll out here.
Shortly after 8, a stranger drove up in a big, white pickup truck, a 2005 Chevy crew cab. Schneider was in the back helping repair a tire.
Cashier Lody Krick activated the pump. The stranger filled up, then got back in the truck and onto 20, heading east with $62.93 worth of stolen gas.
Krick found Schneider and told him the news.
It’s important here to know a little about Ron Schneider. He is a creature of his environment. He is matter-of-fact to a fault, even-keeled even if it kills him.
He lives by a simple code of ethics.
You gas up your car, you pay for the gas.

ronschneidercloseHe wasn’t angry.
He figured the offender had simply forgotten to pay. It happens from time to time.
So he did what he always does in such situations. Without a word to Krick or anyone else, he climbed into his 1989 Buick Park Avenue and took off in search of the white pickup.
There was accounting to be done. The ledger had to be corrected. When the day is done, debits and credits must agree.
He was going to get his money. Simple as that.
There were no hard feelings.
He had given his weather-beaten Buick a nickname: Old Blue. At the time, Old Blue had 260,000 miles on the odometer.
Schneider got in Old Blue, accelerated onto U.S. 20 east and drove like, well, he drove like a madman with a healthy heart.
“Well, he had a couple minutes head-start on me, so I figured I better get the hell down the road,” he said. “I kicked the old Buick into top end. It governored out at 110.”
I mistook that for colorful local parlance. He said it again, noting his chase slowed when he found himself “up against the governor.” The governor, it turns out, is a technical term for a device used to limit an engine’s speed.
Schneider roared out of Cody in a scene fit for a movie: a 63-year-old man with a failing heart tearing up Highway 20 in Cherry County at 110 mph in an 18-year-old Buick named Old Blue.
If you’re going to stage a high-speed car chase, Cherry County is a fine setting. A sprawling expanse of rolling, grass-covered dunes, Cherry County is larger in area than three states. It has more square miles (6,010) than people (5,713).
About eight miles down the road, Schneider caught a glimpse of the pickup as Old Blue flew over a hill east of Nenzel. He was gaining ground fast. In another mile, he pulled alongside the truck and motioned for the driver to pull over.
The tumblers of the universe were about to click back into place. Or so it seemed.
The man in the truck had other ideas. The longer the chase dragged on, the more he seemed like a desperado.
“Boy, he just accelerated and took off down the road and straddled the white line so I couldn’t get alongside him again,” Schneider said.
The game of cat and mouse continued as the miles disappeared below Old Blue’s tires. The pickup straddled the line until Kilgore, where the driver made an abrupt left and sped toward South Dakota and the Rosebud Reservation.
“I just sucked in behind him, and when we were five, six miles north of Kilgore, I passed him,” Schneider said. “He couldn’t outrun me; he was driving a two-cab pickup. His could only go about 98. I knew that. I could go 110.”
Two times Schneider got in front of his quarry, and two times the driver swerved the pickup into a ditch and evaded his pursuer.
By this time, Schneider’s dander was up. This was a matter of principle, and the man in the pickup was flouting principle at every turn. He was determined to confront his nemesis and get some answers. By now he figured the scofflaw was a resident of the Rosebud Nation, addled by drugs or booze.
“It just pissed me off that he was driving a pretty new pickup and he couldn’t pay a damn gas bill,” Schneider said. “I was going to follow him home and find out where he lives.”
About 16 miles north of Kilgore, the driver panicked. He pulled off the road at St. Francis and turned onto a gravel path that dead-ended a small creek in the midst of a prairie dog town. He had run out of room to run.
“I saw he was gonna try to cross that creek and go up the other side,” Schneider said. “He disappeared over the ridge. I drove up the ridge, and he was sitting right down below me, stuck in the sand.”
Schneider got out of Old Blue. He looked over the ravine where the chase had ended and asked the driver why he had driven off without paying for his gas.
“And he says he didn’t have any money,” he said. “I said, ‘I suppose you mean that the pickup’s stolen, too?’ And he said, ‘yeah.’”
He tried to persuade the man to turn himself in. He gave him a choice: Face justice in Nebraska or deal with reservation authorities.

A mugshot of Kale from 2001, when he was jailed in Athens, Texas, for cruelty to animals.

A mugshot of Bruce Kale from 2001, when he was jailed in Athens, Texas, for cruelty to animals.

What Schneider didn’t know: His gas thief, 26-year-old Bruce Shifford Kale IV, was a wanted man in Missouri.
Two days prior to the gas theft, a man Schneider’s age, 63-year-old Carl Clevenger, had been shot in the head in the kitchen of his trailer near Wheeling, Mo. Police in Livingston County thought they knew who shot him. On Friday, they issued an arrest warrant for Kale on suspicion of first-degree murder.
For more than 30 miles, Schneider had doggedly hounded Kale across the prairie. Now he wanted to see justice done as humanely as possible.
His belief in the better angels of our nature had taken him to the edge of a ravine on a South Dakota Indian Reservation, where he shouted across at a desperate man on the run from a murder charge.
When Kale reached into the truck, pulled on a backpack and then fished out a lever-action rifle, Schneider was undeterred. They continued their remarkable dialogue.
Schneider kept insisting the best course of action was for Kale to turn himself in and take his medicine. Kale kept saying that was impossible. Schneider was unfazed, at one point even suggesting Kale come up the hill so they could “talk this thing out.” He figured there was still time to make everything right.
“It was obvious he had a rifle and it was obvious I wasn’t afraid of it,” he said. “For some reason it didn’t spook me. I visited with him for quite a while. He said he’d been to prison and he wasn’t going to go back. Then he just walked away from me from and down into the canyon.”
His final plea unheeded, he watched Kale walk off and disappear in the prairie brush surrounding the creek bottom. He then drove to a reservation home and called police. An officer showed up and ran the plates. Only then did Schneider learn Kale was wanted for murder.
Within an hour, tribal police and FBI agents who had been on the reservation investigating drugs caught up with Kale a mile from the pickup. Police said he refused to surrender. They said he raised his rifle, and when he did that, a tribal sniper shot him to death.
Kale had come to Cody from a world of deep trouble. Trouble was his birthright. When Kale was running from Ron Schneider, his father, Bruce Shifford Kale III, was a thousand miles away in a Texas penitentiary, doing time for murder.
When it was over, cops, family members and friends alike were aghast by Schneider’s hair-raising pursuit.
Everyone wanted to know what he was thinking.
“I wasn’t thinking; I’d done that before,” he said. “I had no fear of it. It didn’t occur to me at all that he was aggressive. He showed no hostility toward me.”
Still, he came in for a tongue-lashing or two.
An FBI agent told him, “If you were my dad, I’d kick your butt.”
Charles Red Crow, the Rosebud Police Chief, said of Schneider:
“If he’s not religious, he should be.”
In a few days, calls started coming in from all corners of the country.
On April Fool’s Day, the story of Ron Schneider’s wild ride broke across America via The Associated Press.
It was quite a story. The cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing was factual or if it had been embellished here and there.
When I found the AP story online, I learned it was the truth, plain and unvarnished.
I wondered if he’d spent much time reflecting on the danger he courted that day.
“Definitely. I thought about it quite a while,” he said. “I didn’t have a single thing with me for protection. He had plenty of time to kill me even when I stopped him on the road. He could’ve just stepped out of his car and shot me. I guess that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t too upset with him. I had a little bit of mixed feelings about him getting killed, too.”
In the end, he figured Kale had just “lost his desire to kill someone.”
as for his heart, well, it survived the chase in fine fashion.
“After I got home that afternoon it was the best I felt for several years,” he said. “My old adrenaline was pumping pretty good.”

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Welcome to Cody, Neb., a town too tough to die

Snow, glorious snow. Lots of shoveling, grunting and sweating. Gimme more snow.

Snow, glorious snow. Lots of shoveling, grunting and sweating. Gimme more snow.

Note: It’s Thursday, Nov. 21. Week before Thanksgiving. We’ve been home for too many months. I’m afraid to count them.
Updated note: It’s Thursday, Feb. 13. If I was afraid to count the months back in November, I’m terrified now. We’ve been freeloading at Chez 531 for more than five months. Time, she is a wanton will-o-the-wisp. Unless of course you think of Time as a man, which it dawns on me you might, because Father Time. In that case he’s a heartless dickhead.
[Updated update: It's Monday, Feb. 17. There's still a lot of snow piled up outside. So I don't feel too guilty. No more updates. Really.]
Because I haven’t gotten shit done lately. I promised Chris, my therapist, I’d write for five minutes today. That’s right, I have a therapist. Things are that bad. Or maybe that good.
Updated note: I think we got a foot of snow last night. Hopefully more to come tonight. Max doesn’t go to kindergarten much anymore. He logged two hours last week. This week he’s done six. He had a 2-hour delay Monday, followed by two full (three-hour) days. No school today. Likely none tomorrow. Oh, and about Chris: A couple months back, we agreed to go for 20 minutes a day. I fell apart. Immediately. Caved in like a flat roof under 100 feet of wet snow. Things are not so bleak now.
Over the on-again, off-again course of this absurd odyssey, I realize now that Pennsylvania has been a dead zone for productivity. Why? When you’re on the road, everything is alive, immediate and viable. When you put several months between you and the narrative of the road, a deadness festers in the ever-growing canyon dividing then from now. And so here we are.
Updated note: My dealer, Dr. Monheit, has incrementally upped my dosage of legal speed (aka Adderall). I’m up to 15 mg twice a day. I’ll never make Michael Crabtree my bitch, but maybe I’ll finish this. Usually I only take just one a day, because, you know, high blood pressure runs in my genes. Dr. Monheit never has much to say. He carries a burden the size of a Volkswagen Beetle to the office with him every day. I try to humor him. In the five minutes I see him each month, I try to elicit at least one smile. Poor Dr. Feelgood don’t feel all that good most days. Anyway, I’m in the battle now, trying to breathe life into the canyon of death. Yet the time, it slips away. Ain’t it funny?
In the dead zone. The leaves are bare. The trees stark sentinels. Nakedly they await the harsh winter. And I’m in a chair in an office chatting with Chris Carbo, my friendly interlocutor at the head-shrinking shop. He’s in his 30s, and I’m confessing my Twitter problem. For some reason this makes me feel like a total pussy, like I’d be more of a man if I copped to a drug problem, a booze problem, a sex problem 0r anything but this: I got myself on Twitter and I can’t get off.
Updated note. Damn, this has been some kind of winter. I’m loving every inch of snow. But I feel a trifle guilty, because Tom Breslin, aka Becky’s dad, isn’t loving this nonstop festival of snow. And he’s a wonderful guy. Sneaky bastard, though. A couple hours ago, as I was preparing to write, I told Becky to keep an eye on her dad, because I knew he’d try to slip outside and shovel snow without telling anyone. She went downstairs and found his office empty. I knew it.
He was out in the street, bundled up like Dr. Yuri Zhivago. He wielded his favorite shovel. I knew he’d do this. I knew because it’s the kind of shit he does. I especially knew he’d do this today because Becky and I got in an hour or more of shoveling without him this morning.
This living with off the in-laws situation is more sweet than awkward, but I feel dirty every time Tom thanks me for doing some trifling task or other. I want to say, “Hey buddy, maybe you hadn’t noticed, but we been freeloading here for going on six months now. You don’t have to thank me.” But I don’t, because I don’t want to draw his attention to this sorry fact if he’s inclined to overlook it.

As for Twitter, I killed that habit cold turkey. Months ago. Turned out Twitter wasn’t my problem. It was just an electronic red herring. 
Now I wish I could get back into it, just in a measured, decent sort of way.

That's the neighbor's house across the street from Chez 531. Yes, it's been an awesome winter so far.

That’s the neighbor’s house across the street from Chez 531. Yes, it’s been an awesome winter so far.

But I’m back now, battling my predilection for wasting time. Hell, I’m not mining manganese. I’m not digging ditches. How bad can it be? If I got paid  $15 an hour for eight hours a day, I’d gladly do this. Twenty would be better, though.
I also hang on bitterly, if a bit reticently, to the notion that this story is worth the telling. When you’re on the road, the  two-dimensional, binary world presented by the liberal conservative sycophantic, corporate media dissolves into nothingness. The flat universe fills with air. People come to life and reveal themselves as three-dimensional creatures. And I love them.
Updated note. I still believe in that last sentence, however trite it may sound now. And it’s nearly Valentine’s Day. If you’re reading this, I love you. And thank you. I’m in my underwear, in my mother-in-law’s house, but I’m not typing in the basement. So there. Things are good. 
I now return to the middle of June, aka eight months ago. Damn, that scares the shit out of me. We spent a couple nights in Cody, Neb., the “Town too tough to die.” That was too good to pass up.

The road to Cody
We stumbled upon Cody blind, without premeditation, having no idea it existed.
It was Tuesday night, June 11.
On Monday morning, after I’d completed a solo walking tour about Fort Hays State Historic Site, we drove north out of Hays, Kansas. We arrived there Friday night and, lucking into a serendipitous power hookup at the town park, stayed for a free weekend of camping and baseball.
We left Hays heading north on U.S. 183. And damn, was it ever hot.
It was the kind of sizzling heat that brings to mind the evangelical notion of Hell.
The temperature in Hays that day peaked at 104 degrees. It is Hays’ hottest June 10 on record.
In less than an hour we were in Stockton. Arn Lytle, my Sunflower State Virgil, had briefed me about this town founded by former slaves who left Kentucky after Reconstruction. We searched north and south, east and west through Stockton and found not a single reference to the town’s black founders. I was incensed. What kind of historical whitewashing had taken place here?
Alas, I later realized Stockton was the junction where we would have turned left to head for Nicodemus, which lies 20 miles west of 183. Nicodemus, and not Stockton, was founded by former slaves. That there’s what my Georgia friend Anthony Williams would call a brain fart.
I blame the heat. Because, you know, it was hot.
As for Nicodemus, it seems right proud of its history. Sorry we missed it.
We continued north and stopped in Phillipsburg to write and mail a couple postcards. We parked across E Street from the post office. Still hot.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. Sweat soaked my T-shirt. Sweat trickled down my chest and invaded the crevasses in my belly fat. It was disgusting. And hot.
We got back on 183 north, in search of cooler climes. In a half hour we were in Nebraska. We stopped at Boomer’s Dairy Barn in Alma for milkshakes and temporary relief.
We made lamentably quick work of the milkshakes, then got back on 183 and drove until we picked up Interstate 80 at Holdredge and headed west. One hundred miles from there we exited at North Platte.
It was dark. The seething temperatures had softened. We stopped at McDonald’s, but the heat had beaten me. I curled up in the Behemoth and napped while Becky and Max surfed the Internet beneath the arches.
No doubt North Platte has its peculiar charms. It was the terminus of the Union Pacific Railway for a year, until Laramie came online.
We didn’t see any of it save the McDonald’s and Walmart. A travesty, to be sure.
The world’s largest rail yard? Didn’t see it. The Golden Spike? Nope. Same goes for the North Platte Canteen and the Buffalo Bill Ranch.
We found our way to the Walmart, though, marking the end of our five-day run of camping with free electrical hookups. Kansas had been a magical land of free-flowing power. It was our first Walmart stay since Arkansas.

******

We squandered Tuesday morning on nothing in particular. Eventually we made our way to U.S. 83 north and didn’t stop till we reached Valentine, hard by the South Dakota line. We bought groceries at Henderson’s IGA, then stopped at the Alco discount store. Becky bought a digital camera card while I gave Max his first driving lesson.
Sprawling and sparsely populated, the Alco parking lot was the perfect venue for a 5-year-old’s first driving lesson. What could go wrong?
We frittered away a couple hours in Valentine, a sleepy town on the High Plains with fewer than 2,500 residents. I was too new to these parts to recognize Valentine for what it is: a regional hub. It is the seat of Cherry County on the northern fringe of the Sandhills, which I knew little of but was destined to learn more about.
We survived Max’s debut as wheel man. Having patronized the IGA on the eastern edge of town, we stopped at Scotty’s Ranchland Foods on the west side. We filled up the tank. And the hours melt away.
Try as I might, I can’t account for most of Tuesday. Valentine is 130 miles from North Platte. By the time we skipped out of town, night had fallen.
Soon all was darkness, save the spectacular streaks of lightning which danced and glowered on the western horizon. Just a thunderstorm, probably a hundred miles away, yet we were freaked out. Sometimes you get the heebie-jeebies on the road.
In any case, we’d been jittery about storms since Louisiana. Our paranoia peaked when we hit Tornado Alley not long after a twister killed 25 people in Moore, Okla. Our families and friends fretted and told us to be careful, and after what happened in Moore, well, you couldn’t be too careful.
Now every flash of lightning in the far-off sky spelled tornado. Desperate to put in for the night before we drove headlong into bad weather, we stopped briefly in Nenzel, a whisper of a town 30 miles west of Valentine. There wasn’t really anywhere to park our lumbering galoot of a vehicle, so we kept going for another seven miles till we stumbled into Cody.
When we saw the welcome sign billing Cody as “A town too tough to die,” we had a feeling we were in the right place.
No sooner had we turned off 20 were we in the city park, which much to our surprise included several RV hookup sites. Strangely, it looked as if the campground was filled to capacity. But as we circled the dirt driveway we saw the last spot on the western edge. We pulled in gratefully, shut off the engine and hunkered down for the night.

DSCF4761

June 11, Cody, Nebraska
I awoke before Max and Becky, slipped out of the Behemoth and took a stroll about Cody. It looked kinda dead for a town that’s too tough to die.
Not that it wasn’t pleasant. Bird songs circled in the wind, mingling with the voices of fellow campers. The wind is a constant accompaniment to life in Nebraska’s Sandhills. Yellow-breasted hummingbirds chased each other across the playground.
America looked idyllic in the light of day.
Cody’s an apparition, a memory twisting in the High Plains wind. The Bargain Bin at the corner of Nebraska and Cherry appeared ready to blow away.
I pushed on the Post Office door. Locked.
A man pedaled by on a bicycle. He carried a laptop and issued a businesslike “good morning.”
I gave up and returned to the park, which is remarkably tidy. Paper towels in the bathroom. Bars of soap. Someone is watching over this forlorn town.
I met Josh, the maintenance man. He’s the guy who keeps the restrooms in soap and towels. Josh said his uncle bought a place out here in 2008, and last year he escaped South Carolina with his two small children and didn’t stop till he got here.
He likes the town’s getaway quality. Speaking of getaways. Ron Schneider has a good story. I’ll get to that later.
After breakfast, Becky and Max accompanied me on a return trip to the post office. I asked the postmistress whom I might find to tell me about Cody. She sent me across U.S. 20 to the Sinclair gas station, where Ron Schneider holds court.
I stumbled into an easy-going cribbage game. You might have thought I had an appointment. I had barely introduced myself when I found myself sitting in a chair and being regaled by Ron Schneider, owner and raconteur.
Cody once was the definition of a whistle-stop town. It sat astride the Chicago and North Western Railway’s Cowboy Trail, another wind-blown village on the fathomless plains that you never heard of unless you happened to live there.
When the Depression plunged the Chicago and North Western Railway into bankruptcy, the bad news was plain on the depot wall. After six decades of service, the railroad pulled out for good in 1943. Cody’s been dying ever since.
By the end, the stretch of track here was a mess.
“They used to have sections of track here where the engineers would have to walk in front of the train and inspect the track,” he says. “They had some 5 mph limits here. It didn’t matter how fast they went. They used to fall off the track at least once a week between here and Omaha.”
Cody had a population of 408 in 1930. It is now lucky to count 150 residents.
“The agent here was name of Cody, so at that time the train would just come into the whistle stop and leave the mail with Cody,” Ron Schneider says.
When Schneider’s maternal grandfather arrived here in the late 19th century, there were no Sandhills as we know them today.
“In the late 1800s, these Sandhills were still dunes,” he says. “This was a desert. He said you could ride a horse out over the hills, and a week later you could still see your tracks in the sand. The last 150 years the rainfall has increased and put us back into grassland.”
His father, Henry Schneider, died in 2001, three months short of his 100th birthday. Henry was a gentle, hard-working man. As far as Ron knew, his dad did little else but work. He was a teenager before he knew his dad could play the piano.
Henry Schneider got married and bought a place south of Cody in the Niobrara basin. He eked out a living for a while as a dryland farmer. He was a thinking man’s farmer, and he got to thinking there must be a better way than working 18-hours just to get by. He had six sons and two daughters to feed.
“He was one of the first ones in the country to have rubberized tires on his tractor,” Ron says. “He was the first guy with a combine threshing machine.”
Those technological advantages helped, but he still struggled. Henry Schneider had done some reading about irrigation wells and learned about an invention that might change his life. He became a pioneer in the use of self-propelled irrigation pivots. I didn’t even know what a pivot was until I met Ron Schneider.
Frank Zybach, the Nebraska-born innovator who invented the self-propelled pivot irrigation system, came out to the family ranch and installed the pivot system he had sold Henry Schneider.
Zybach’s invention enabled Schneider to take advantage of submerged sea which lies 200 feet below the surface of the Sandhills. One hundred million years ago, this region was under water, part of the massive Cretaceous Seaway that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Dad went from raising 15-20 bushels per acre up to 150,” he says. “Finally he wasn’t getting hurt. He wasn’t worrying about tomorrow.”
Over his seven decades, Schneider’s seen his beloved Sandhills change in front of his eyes. The climate is changing, and with it everything else.
“Back when I was a kid, we had three or four weeks when it never got above zero,” he says. “Now we only have four or five nights a year where it gets below zero. Seventy years, it’s changed quite a bit. It’s hard to believe it changes that fast.”

Ron Schneider stands tall against the grain elevator which once served Cody, Neb.

Ron Schneider stands tall against the grain elevator which once served Cody, Neb.

I thanked Schneider for his time. We made our way across the street and stopped in at the Circle C grocery store. One afternoon four years ago, two teachers at Cody-Kilgore High School had an epiphany.
Now for the first time in 15 years, Cody residents aren’t forced to drive 38 miles to Valentine to buy eggs and bread and butter and flour. Students helped plan and construct the straw-bale structure, and now operate the Circle C with oversight from Mary Van Winkle, a Nenzel native who took a significant pay cut to come home and throw herself into this singular mission. We bought some cheese and tortillas and walked back to the camper and made quesadillas.

*********
Twilight settles over the Sandhills. There is enchantment in the air. I stand outside the Behemoth and admire the way the ebbing light plays on the old grain elevator.
Ron Schneider swings slowly through the park in his white GMC 1500. I know it’s him because big Rex, his copper-colored lab, peers at me out of the truck bed. He makes a second pass. He asks if I want a guided tour of Cody.
Of course I do.
He spins around town, then turns north toward South Dakota. Soon we leave the pavement and rumble over a dirt-and-gravel path that rumbles through the Rosebud Sioux reservation.
Tall, lush waves of grass roll across the landscape with a hypnotic splendor. Short bluestem, long bluestem, reed canarygrass, switchgrass, porcupine grass and many more. Together they rise and fall with the omnipresent wind, sucking up the fading sunlight and casting ghostly shadows, spinning the landscape into a tableau of sparse enchantment.
A red-winged blackbird perches on a tallgrass shaft. A pair of golden larks hurtle and tumble after each other.
He was a science major at Chadron State. He taught for a while, but grew bored. Felt like he was babysitting. His first wife died when he was 22, leaving him with a 2-year-old son. He’s seen tough times.
His eyes are deep-set, his voice soft but strong just the same. When he was a kid, he stuttered. You wouldn’t know it to hear him now.
He carries a lifeline on his hip. He went to the Mayo Clinic in the spring of 2007. He was on the list for a heart transplant. Then he was rejected.
“My mother was the problem,” he says. “She didn’t build my heart right. I had a three-chambered heart. The septum between the upper chambers is gone. Hanging there in rags. In four years my heart went from normal down to barely functional.”
Now he’s got a heart pump for a permanent companion. HeartMate, same one Dick Cheney uses.
“It’s getting to be a part of me,” he says. “This is my destination. I’m running on two 14-volt batteries. Three years now it’s never missed a beat.”
A jackrabbit bounds along the reservation road. A memory surfaces. When he was a boy in Niobrara River country, he shot a lot of jackrabbits.
“In the evenings we’d take our spotlights out and our .22s and hunt jackrabbits,” he says. “The mink farms up in South Dakota would buy all the rabbits we could shoot to feed their mink. We shipped out three van loads of rabbits in one week. Rabbits here were awfully thick.”
He says Cody was some kind of town, once upon a time. The dance hall still sits on the edge of town, white and quiet as a church. It wasn’t always that way.
“They used to have what they called the White Elephant dance here once a year,” he says. “And it was wide-open here in Cody. That dance hall over there was full of gambling and drinking and fighting.
“When I was in grade school I remember going to the White Elephant dance, and the only way I could get in was get on my hands and knees and crawl through the crowd. It was crowded. We had people here from Chicago coming out. It was advertised in the Chicago papers.”
He swings the truck around and heads back to town. We drive by the white sentinel of sobriety on the hill, Hunts Chapel United Methodist Church. Rex rides in the back. We don’t wear seat belts.
“There used to be two lumber yards here, two grocery stores, a newspaper,” he says. “It changes, but it doesn’t really change. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s peaceful.”
A doe bounds across Chestnut Street. During Prohibition, they say you could get a drink just about anywhere here, anywhere but that old Methodist Church.
“We tore down an old building for scrap and we found a bunch of still parts down in the basement,” he says. “One of the older guys in town said that building at one time was a bar. He said they used to sell bootleg liquor out the back of this bar. They had a trap door out the side of the building. We stripped the inside walls out and we found the trap door. He was right. Someone would put a bottle in there and the money, and then come back an hour later it’d be full. They used to have a couple trainloads of sugar come in here every week. All for hooch. We had some pretty good whiskey makers here.”
We drive past the old hardware store, the grocery store, the old fire hall, the old library. Not much here is not old.
He pulls into the park. I am flush with the magic of the road. I shake his hand and thank him profusely. He calls me “young man.”
I wish. I love you, Ron Schneider, even though you set me up.
You surprised me in the gloaming, when you knew I would find it impossible not to fall for the Sandhills.
When he was a young man, he liked to fly his plane above these hills at dusk, admiring the way the bluegrass absorbs the ebbing day and illuminates the landscape with spectral shadows.
Winsome, that’s a good word for Ron Schneider’s Sandhills.

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