Joshua Sutherland Allen

Joshua Sutherland Allen

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part III

The switchyards occupy about a hundred acres of land five blocks to the west of Black River.  They are only a few blocks south of downtown Poplar Bluff, but the neighborhood that borders the yards is cut off from the rest of the town by the railroad tracks and the river.  Because of this fact, the area is known as South Poplar Bluff, as if it is a different community.

            Hubert Robertson lives just a short walk away from the switchyards.  As he grows up, they will become his downfall.  Trains sitting on tracks waiting to move forward toward unknown destinations appeal to young Hubert’s imagination and desire for adventure. 

            The train whistle blows.  The cars lurch.  Slowly, the big freight train moves forward along the southbound track.  In one of the boxcars, Hubert Robertson’s heart is beating faster and faster as he hides among the crates, daydreaming about where this train will take him.

            As the tracks leave the town, they run along the banks of Black River, squeezed in between the river bluffs and sweeping acres of cropland.  William Dixon, Hubert’s grandfather, owns much of this land.  The evening air blows past the boxcar, easing in through the cracks in the car walls.  Hubert presses his face against one of these cracks, both to feel the cool breeze and to watch as the land passes by.

            Hubert has never been more than a few miles away from his home, so he is excited about the possibilities that lie ahead along these railroad tracks.  He wants to be free: away from the school that bores him and the grandfather who beats him.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Uncle Hubert, Part II

This is the second installment of a story I am writing about my uncle.

Hubert Robertson was born in 1926, in the tiny village of Stringtown, Missouri.  In the middle of the Roaring Twenties, Stringtown was an island of poverty.  Its residents were poor subsistence farmers who worked the brown, rocky land they had reclaimed from the surrounding forest. 

            Hubert was the youngest of nine children.  His mother, Eddie, originally came from Trigg County, Kentucky, near what would become the Kentucky Lake resort area.  

            Eddie’s father, William Dixon, was one of the big landowners in Poplar Bluff.  He owned thousands of acres and employed hundreds of workers.  His wealth, however, was never enjoyed by his daughter.  Eddie was William’s eldest daughter, and the reason William and his wife, Avis, had settled in Butler County.  When Eddie was very young, the family had set out from Trigg County to seek land and fortune in points west.  When they had crossed Black River, Eddie fell ill.  With a sick child, William and Avis could not travel.  They settled down in Poplar Bluff for what they thought was a temporary stay.  Then William got a job, Avis had another baby, and the family never left the area.

            William Dixon never forgave his daughter for that illness.

            Nor did he ever forgive her for not being a boy. 

            Avis Turner had been sixteen years old when she married the 20-year-old William Dixon in 1886.  Eddie was born almost exactly nine months later.  During Avis's pregnancy, William had been so convinced that his firstborn would be a boy that he refused to consider any girl’s names.  His first child would be named Edward Lee Dixon.  When Avis gave birth to a baby girl in the soggy heat of a Kentucky August, William had been stunned, and he had made no attempt at hiding his disappointment.  He still refused to consider any girl names for his daughter.  “She’ll be Eddie,” he said.  “Eddie Lee.”

            In 1905, Eddie Lee Dixon met James Henry Robertson, a store clerk in Poplar Bluff.  They were married just before Christmas that year.

            Fifteen years later, James and Eddie moved their large and growing family to Stringtown.  Their first daughter, Irene, had been born in 1907, followed by four more children at more or less regular intervals.  In the summer of 1920, Eddie was pregnant with their sixth child, and the house they had been renting in Poplar Bluff could no longer fit their clan.  In Stringtown they found a large, affordable house on a small plot of land where Eddie could garden and raise the family while James was working in Poplar Bluff.  They bought the house and moved late in the summer, and in September of that year their daughter, Mildred, was born.

            Stringtown was only about ten miles south of Poplar Bluff, but in the early years of the twentieth century, a ten-mile trip through rolling hills and thick forest was not a reasonable daily commute.  So James boarded with a couple of his co-workers in town during the workweek, and he returned home to Stringtown on the weekends.  This arrangement meant that the youngest of the nine children would never really know their father.

            Three more boys followed Mildred: Harold in 1922, Harlan in 1924, and Hubert in 1926.  By the time Hubert was born, Irene had married and moved back into Poplar Bluff, and seventeen-year-old Eugene, James and Eddie’s oldest son, was away from home working for long stretches of time.  But still, the big house in Stringtown had little room to spare.

William Dixon, grandfather of Hubert Robertson

Avis Dixon, grandmother of Hubert Robertson

Friday, September 26, 2014

Uncle Hubert

This is the first installment of a story I am writing about my uncle.           

            In the railroad switchyards on the south end of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a ten-year-boy surveys the boxcars of each freight train waiting in the yard for the signal to proceed.  In some of the cars he finds hobos who have set up temporary, mobile homes among the freight.  Some are so packed full of dry goods that he is unable to fit even a hand or a foot inside.  Some are empty.  Some are filled just enough to give a small boy ample hiding room. 

            The boy finds a couple of suitable candidates.  One is on a northbound track, and the other is southbound.  He knows his geography.  Southbound trains are headed for Little Rock and eventually on to Dallas.  Northbound trains are headed for St. Louis and Chicago.  But along the way, switches can happen. A train might divert eastward to Nashville, or it might continue westward from St. Louis and head to Kansas City and Denver. 

            The boy takes a step toward the southbound train.  “I wonder where it is going,” he thinks.

            He finds a half-empty boxcar, and he climbs aboard.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


My home is not the two-story white house
With a basement, that faces the preschool across the street
And gives birth to tulip poplar blossoms in the spring;
The house where we kept two dogs, a hedgehog, a cat,
Where we lost a daughter, and where we buried the hedgehog.
My home is not the farm where I grew up,
Where my neighbor the whippoorwill
Was my companion on summer nights,
Nesting outside my bedroom window,
Keeping me awake with his song;
Where summer trips down the hill to the creek
Meant adventure and possibility
Like that known by Balboa, De Soto, or Drake.
My home is not the houses where my grandparents lived,
Where my parents grew up,
Where my siblings and I searched
Through boxes of junk in the attic,
Discovering treasures among the dusty, forgotten refuse –
Old mail carrier’s hats, a broken but useable typewriter,
Christmas decorations from Christmases past:
Simple treasures that knew how to spark a child’s imagination.

My home is the park in the center of town,
The one with the walking and biking trail
That borders the cemetery,
Where my grandmother is buried,
And her parents, and her sisters.
My home is the length of fast food restaurants,
Tax offices, banks, and law firms
That stretch for miles along the main business route in town.
My home is the Weed and Seed with its drugged out houses
And its water marks from spring-time floods.
My home is the trash heap beside the river
Where kids throw tires that have outlived their purpose as tires,
Strange rubber ornaments along the muddy bank
Where mosquitos breed.
My home is the high school with the leaky roof
Where the mice run through classrooms, kitchens, and counselors’ offices.
My home is the salvage yard on the south end
And the subdivision up north.

My people have been here for at least four generations –
Six generations on one side.
My people are teachers, postmen, city clerks.
But also my people
Are the people who inhabit the streets and the slums,
The mansions, the alleys,
The modest, middle-class homes on north Main,
The renters in one-room apartments,
Just getting started in life, or just putting pieces back together;
My people live in rescue missions,
In the projects of East Side,
And in the doctors’ homes on Pill Hill.
My family is the kid who thinks she doesn’t need school,
Thinks there’s nothing she needs to learn:
“I know how to take care of myself,” she says.
My family is the meth head on Main Street,
Teeth rotting, hair thinning, body wasting;
His dead, sunken eyes veiling a life that once was.
Even the mangy dog and the skinny cat
That lurk in the dumpsters behind the grocery stores,
Waiting for a meal they don't have the energy to go kill,
The strays and the sick ones:

These are my family.

This place is my people;
These people are my home.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tom White, Part VI

This is the final installment of a story based on my great-grandfather's life.

The attending physician did not take long with Tom.  It was obvious that he would need some sort of major operation.  The attending simply took a cursory look and then called for the surgeon. 

Tom would need surgery to repair his broken arm and his broken right leg.  He would need skin grafts on both legs. 

An orderly wheeled Tom into the pre-op room.  The on-call anesthesiologist arrived to administer the sedative and general anesthesia.

Tom yelled, “I have told you shit-head people that I don’t want no damn sedative!”

The anesthesiologist calmly replied, “Well, Mr. White, I do recommend the general, but if the surgeon is okay with it we could just administer a local…”

“Goddamn it!” Tom shouted.  “I don’t need no pain stuff!  I’ll by God do this on my own!”

The anesthesiologist, two nurses, and an orderly tried to argue with him, but they got nowhere.  When Tom White had made up his mind, some scrub-clad hospital employees would not be able change it.  Tom was determined to face his surgery without any kind of numbing drug. 

Dr. John Roper, the surgeon on call, had finished scrubbing up and preparing for the operation, and he walked into the room as the staff was debating with Tom the need for general anesthesia. 

Dr. Roper was a portly middle-aged man with an unfortunate balding pattern on his scalp.  Instead of thinning in a uniform, dignified manner, his hair appeared as if it had retreated in piecemeal fashion, with various patches making valiant stands on asymmetrical sections of his head.  His appearance did not inspire confidence.  However, his experience in the operating room with unusual patients was extensive.

The surgeon grabbed the anesthesiologist by the arm, pulled him aside, and asked, “What’s going on?”

“This one won’t take the sedative,” the anesthesiologist said.  “Says he doesn’t need any pain killer.”

Dr. Roper sighed.  “Okay,” he said.

He turned to the patient.  “Mr. White, I’m Dr. Roper.  I will be doing your surgeries today.  I understand you are refusing pain medication?”

“Damn straight,” Tom said.  “Don’t need any of that shit.”

“Okay,” Dr. Roper said.  “That’s fine with me.  Let’s get started.”

Dr. Roper took his place at Tom’s right side and called for a scalpel. 

“Just to warn you, Mr. White, this will hurt quite a bit.”

“I can take it,” Tom said.

For a couple of seconds, Dr. Roper hovered his scalpel above Tom’s right leg.  Then he started cutting.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Tom cried. 

“What’s wrong, Mr. White?” Dr. Roper asked.

“Uh….maybe…uh….maybe I will let you put me to sleep after all.”

For only the second time in his life, Tom had been out-willed by someone.

A few hours later, young Tom White and his wife, Betty, were waiting in the hospital family room.  Dr. Roper stepped into the room, still wearing his garments from surgery.

“Mr. White?  I’m Dr. Roper, the surgeon.  I do have some good news for you.  Your father came through the surgery just fine.  We were able to successfully complete the skin grafts, and we set all the broken bones.  He is in recovery right now, but you can see him as soon as he has come to.”

Young Tom exhaled deeply.  “Okay, thanks, doctor.  Is there anything I need to do, or anything I need to know?”

“Well…I was just getting to that,” Dr. Roper said.  He had given bad news countless times in his career, but he never found it to get more enjoyable as time went on.

            He said, “Mr. White, the leg wounds were very severe.  At his age, they are going to be very difficult to recover from.  It might be impossible.  I can’t say for sure, but from what I have seen today, I don’t think your father will ever walk again.”

            Young Thomas Robert White laughed.  It was the deepest, most carefree, most absurd laugh Dr. Roper had ever heard.  This man was laughing the laugh of a person whose weightiest burdens had just been lifted from his shoulders – the laugh of a person who had just heard the funniest, most ridiculous story that could possibly be imagined.  It was the laugh, Dr. Roper thought, of a man who was losing his mind.

            For a second Dr. Roper was mortified.  He looked at the man in front of him who was wearing a steel brace on his left leg and limping around the room.  Obviously a polio victim.  Maybe the remark about not being able to walk…

            “Mr. White, I’m not sure I understand…”

            Young Tom tried to calm himself down enough to talk, but it was another minute or two before he could get any words to come out.  He was laughing so hard that his eyes were squeezing tears out from between his tightly clinched eyelids. 

            “I’m sorry, doctor,” Tom said when he had calmed down enough to talk.  “You don’t understand.”  Here he started laughing again.  “You said that he wouldn’t ever walk again.  That just shows me that you don’t know my old man.  You just tell him that he won’t ever walk again.  He’ll walk out of here this afternoon just to spite you!”

            It did not happen that afternoon.  But three weeks later, old Thomas N. White – the veteran of the trenches of France, the strong-bodied teamster and railroad wrecker, the stubborn son of Missouri farmers, the man with a will the strength of iron – walked out of the Poplar Bluff Hospital under his own power. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Watching a Losing Football Team

“Illegal forward pass?!” I scream and curse
At figures clad in red and white, who rush
Across the screen of my HDTV
Without apparent purpose or knowledge
Of fundamental rules that guide their game.
“You cannot throw a pass beyond the line
Of scrimmage.  I knew that in junior high
And I was just an offensive lineman!”

These are our Kansas City Chiefs.  These are
Professionals whose salaries could fund
The yearly budgets of small nation-states.
These are the ones who pull the faithful crowds
Into their palace by the Interstate –
The loyal fans who buy expensive tickets
In play-off years as well as in the years
When losses and ineptitude were all
A ticket-buyer really could expect.
There was that one triumphal year, of course,
All the way back in 1969.
The names of heroes ring the playing field:
Hank Stram, Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Culp.
The giants of a generation past.
Since then, incompetence has held free reign.

I change the channel and see across the state.
Blue jerseys, helmets featuring curled horns
Appear beneath a dome, on AstroTurf.
St. Louis Rams fight to end the first half
Losing by only a single touchdown.
Each time I watch the Rams I turn my thoughts
To 1999: Warner and Faulk,
Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az Hakim.
The Greatest Show on Turf, we called them then.
In recent years the Rams have struggled hard
To win even a single game or two.

This is the story of the NFL
Here in Missouri.  Whether Chiefs or Rams,
Or even old St. Louis Cardinals football –
Big Red, the nickname they were always called,
To separate them from the baseball team.
We get a season, maybe two at best,
Of winning ball and playoff contention.
But then we go back to familiar ways:
Mediocrity, frustration, and doubt.
Can the Chiefs get a franchise quarterback?
Do they have a coach who knows how to win?
St. Louis fans don’t know if Bradford can stay
Healthy all season. Will Kroenke take them
Back to Los Angeles?  Is either club
Able to build a winning team this year?

The fault, Missouri fans, is in our hope.
Each year we hope for quality and wins,
But Chiefs and Rams betray us every year.
Why do we watch?  Why do we pay for tickets?
Why do we bundle up and brave the cold
December winds that blow across the prairies
Then up the Kansas and Missouri Rivers,
And drive through Arrowhead to chill the bones
Of foolish or foolhardy fans therein?
Why do we fight downtown St. Louis traffic
To see a game we know our team will lose?

In childhood years I went to church and heard
That faith is substance of what I hope for
And evidence of things I have not seen.
But I know better now.  St. Paul once said,
That of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest.
There may be something to be said of faith.
The souls who pack cold Arrowhead each week
Could say something about their faith, their hope,
That this will be the year we’ve waited for.
But love goes farther, deeper than blind faith.
Some sort of love commands me watch each week.
Perhaps not love of team, per se, because
Pro football is a business, not a love.
But it’s love of family and memory.
It’s watching with my father and grandfather
As Rams beat Titans in the Super Bowl.
It is recalling fall and winter Sundays
In graduate school, and watching Chiefs matches
With friends, and with the family of the girl
I was dating and trying to impress.
It was the same as when we used to go
To see the baseball Cardinals back when
They were no good, in the early nineties.
We listened to our grandpa tell stories
Of the Gashouse Gang, Gibson, Stan the Man.
It was the same when I was in college
At Mizzou, following a no-good team
Before the SEC and Pinkel years,
Remembering the first few games I saw
In person, in Columbia, when I
Was just a child, amazed by lights, and crowds,
And sounds that filled and rocked the stadium.

I watch because these memories are so dear
That they can give me cheer, even when my teams
Are awful, and amount to nothing more
Than one big state-wide disaster.