I almost died in a car accident once. Well, almost died may be stretching the truth a bit. I could have died, if my car had skidded off the road a few yards later than it did, where an old bridge crossed a flood-swollen creek, or if I had hit the car in front of me that I was trying to avoid, or if there had been a concrete barrier in front of me, or if a nuclear warhead from a rogue state had hit in my general vicinity at that moment. If any of those things had happened, I could have died.
I was on my way to work one morning, and the car ahead of me braked suddenly in order to turn left onto a gravel driveway obscured by some overgrowth. The trouble was, this car in front of me had no brake lights. I did not know that he was stopping until I couldn’t do anything about it. I hit my brakes, but instead of stopping my car skidded. I turned the wheel to avoid ramming the other car at 60 miles an hour, and my car spun around on the highway and then fell off the road into a ditch. My driver side fell against the side of this muddy ditch and bounced back upright. As it turned out, no one was hurt. But I still say that I could have died.
When I tell the story, I always make sure to point out that I did not see the other car stopping until it was too late. By the time I saw it, there was nothing I could do. But that’s always the way these stories go, isn’t it? I never saw it until it was too late. “I know the wreck was my fault, officer, but I didn’t see the car in the other lane.” “I just came over the crest of the hill, and there he was. I hit the brakes, but there was nothing I could do. Why wasn’t he crossing at a crosswalk, anyway?”
Tom White saw the truck that hit him. He saw it in plenty of time. But he didn’t move. He just stood there as the truck started backing up, and then in a flash of pure stubbornness and orneriness, he banged on the back of it with his cane, as if to say, “You may be 19 tons of metal and refuse, but I was by God here first!”
Everything about Tom White suggested strength. He was not a tall man, perhaps even an inch or two below average height. But he had broad, powerful shoulders that had been conditioned from years of railroad work. He was legendary among his colleagues for being able to carry four big, uncut railroad ties at a time by himself: two under each arm. Most of the men could only manage one or two with help. He had a long, slender nose that gave him the appearance of a Roman legionary. His hair, which by the time of the trash truck incident had grayed but had only thinned a little, was usually swept back from his face in a gesture that spoke of confidence.
The only concession to weakness in Tom White’s life was his dog. When he had retired from the Missouri Pacific railroad, he had gotten a little Pomeranian to keep him company. (Tom’s wife was a notorious harpy and bitch, so he resolved to spend his golden years keeping as much distance as he could in a 1,000 square foot house.) They made a striking pair: the powerful man and the tiny pile of fur that had a canine shape, if you squinted and looked at it in just the right light. The dog – more like a rat, his son and grandson would say – was Tom’s best friend. Whenever Tom sat down in his recliner in the living room, the dog would jump into his lap and lick his face. The rest of the family hated the animal and would immediately put her down from their laps, but Tom would just take it patiently and then say, “Dad-durn dog like ta eht me up!”
Tom was born in 1892 in Miller County, Missouri. One day Miller County would be a center of Midwest tourism after the great Bagnell Dam was built across the Osage River, creating Lake of the Ozarks. But in 1892, it was a backwater. Slightly southwest of the geographical center of the state, Miller County was a rolling land in the middle of the Ozark Mountains. The land, with its sharply eroded hills and rocky soil, was suitable for cattle and sheep grazing, but little else. Tom’s ancestors were poor farmers. His father, James Ash, was a descendant of German immigrants who had settled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before making the journey west. Tom’s mother’s family was mostly Scots-Irish. His mother died before Tom’s second birthday, and his father promptly gave the boy to his grandparents and left the area. Family lore says he went off to California, and maybe even to Alaska to seek his fortune in the gold rush, but I have never found any records of him after his wife’s death. As far as the official paper trail goes, James Ash simply disappeared.
Tom White took his name from his grandparents, John and Lucy White. They raised him from the time he was two years old, and as far as he was concerned, they were his parents. The Whites lived and worked on a small farm in the Ozark foothills of Ripley County, Missouri. Ripley County was an economic engine for loggers and sawmill operators in the late 19th century. Loggers worked its dense pine, oak, and hickory forests and floated cut trees down the Current River to Doniphan. Sawmill operators in Grandin and Doniphan could treat and shape lumber and ship it out to market quickly. But John White was neither a logger nor a sawmill operator. He was an illiterate, subsistence farmer working the only tiny plot of land he could afford in the area. Each year, he faced drought, rocky soils, and mortgage payments that threatened to swamp him. Family legend says that he once befriended Jesse James during one of the James gang’s jaunts through Ripley County. After that, Jesse would stop by to visit every time he was in the area. During one visit, John White told him that the bank was about to foreclose on their farm because there simply was no money to pay the mortgage that year. Jesse James promptly went into town and paid off the rest of what the Whites owed on the farm.
In the autumn of 1970, Tom White, the orphaned son of poor farmers, the grandson of friends of outlaws, the retired railroad man, stood outside his house in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, checking his mail. The trash man had just re-mounted his truck and was heading to the next house on his route. Thinking Tom was out of the way, he put the truck in reverse and backed up. Tom noticed the reverse lights, heard the telltale beep-beep of a large vehicle backing up, and saw the truck moving toward him. The truck was still 30 or so feet away and was backing up slowly, so Tom had plenty of time to get out of the way, even if his septuagenarian body had lost some of the strength and agility it had when it was younger. But Tom was stubborn and proud. He refused to move.