As the ambulance pulled up to the emergency entrance of the Poplar Bluff Hospital, the paramedics started bracing and harnessing Tom the gurney for the short trip from the ambulance to the emergency room. It was a cool autumn day, and the breezes from the southwest lazily tossed the leaves from the town across the hospital parking lot and off the bluff into the river below.
The dragging had injured Tom pretty severely, so he was given priority at the hospital. The nurses immediately took him back to an examination room, where they cut off what remained of his pants. His legs were badly mangled. Large strips of flesh were missing, exposing muscle and bone. The fabric of his discarded trousers was soaked in blood. It was obvious that such injuries would have caused severe pain and trauma.
“Mr. White,” the head nurse said, “we are going to give you a sedative and a numbing agent to help you with some of this pain.”
“No, ma’am,” Tom said. “I don’t need any of that.”
“Mr. White, it’s going to be a few minutes before the doctor can see you. You will really be more comfortable if you let us give you the sedative.”
“No, ma’am. I’m not going to let you do that.”
There was no hope for the nurse. She could not win a battle of wills with a man who had a few minutes before stood up to a moving, 19-ton garbage truck that was headed directly toward him.
Only one person had ever been able to best Tom White in a battle of wills.
Tom’s relationship with his son, young Thomas Robert White, had never been easy. It wasn’t that they didn’t love or respect each other. But the circumstances of young Tom’s birth and his mother’s death caused old Tom discomfort. It was difficult for him to see his son without thinking of the wife he had lost.
When young Tommy Robert was five years old, he contracted polio. For almost a year the boy lived in a hospital room in St. Louis. An uncle on his mother’s side who lived in St. Louis checked on the boy every week or so, but his father never once visited him. It was too hard.
The hospital was within sight of Sportsman’s Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns baseball teams. Young Tommy would listen to games on the radio with his hospital window open, and he could hear the crowds cheer their ball teams. For that year, the faceless fans at the stadium and the players whose names he heard on the radio – Dizzy and Paul Dean, Joe Medwick, Pepper Martin, Johnny Mize, Frankie Frisch, Jim Bottomley, Rogers Hornsby – were young Tommy’s family. They were there when his father was not.
When Tommy returned home to Poplar Bluff, life became even harder. He had lost almost all use of his left leg, which had severely atrophied. Now six years old, young Tommy had to re-learn how to walk using crutches.
Young Tommy’s stepmother made matters even worse.
Edith and old Tom had married in 1932, when young Tommy was barely a year old. Edith had a son and a daughter from a previous marriage, and a little more than a year after their wedding, Edith and Tom had a daughter together.
I have never understood the reason for Edith’s cruelty. Perhaps she resented the love and grief Tom expressed for his first wife, young Tommy’s mother. Perhaps she wanted to make sure that her children had precedence over Maggie’s child.
It began when young Tommy was in the hospital in St. Louis. Edith started calculating how much Tommy’s medical bills were costing the family each month. Then she began hinting to old Tom that they would be better off if young Tommy had never been born, or if he could just disappear from their lives. At one point, she said that they would be better off if he would die rather than living as a cripple. When Tommy returned home, Edith began keeping track of how much food Tommy ate compared to her own children. She told him that he ate too much, and she told his father that they could not afford to keep him.
So old Tom White sent young Thomas Robert White to live with Maggie’s mother. Lizzie Midkiff raised Tommy, just as John and Lucy White had raised old Tom. From the time Tommy was seven years old until he left for college, his family consisted of him, his grandmother, and his aunt Dode. One of Lizzie’s younger daughters, Ethel, moved back to Poplar Bluff with her husband to help Lizzie care for young Tommy. They were his family. For most of his childhood, it barely occurred to Tommy that he had a father, a stepmother, and a sister who lived just across town.
Their relationship improved as they both grew older, and as young Tom gradually took over the role of caregiver for old Tom and for Edith. They grew to respect one another, and eventually young Tom even liked and admired his father.
(Young Tom did have an opportunity to drown his father once, but he declined. They were in a johnboat together, fishing on Black River. They passed under a low-hanging tree branch, and a long, thick blacksnake fell into their boat. Old Tom could not swim. His fear of snakes, however, proved stronger than his fear of water. As soon as the snake hit the boat, Tom went over the side. Young Tom was left in the boat with the snake as his father struggled to tread water and started sinking. Young Tom swung his paddle down on the snake’s head, crushing it, and then extended the same paddle to his foundering father. Old Tom grabbed the paddle and held on until young Tom could guide the boat to shallow water.)
Old Tom White had never driven a car. He had never obtained a driver license. He just never saw the need. Wherever he wanted to go in town, he could walk. In his working days he walked the mile and a half from his house to the switchyards twice each day, rain or shine.
Tom lived just off of Main Street, a brick relic of 19th century Poplar Bluff. A mile walk south would take Tom downtown. A mile and a half walk north took him to the home of his son and daughter-in-law.
As Tom got older, walking everywhere was no longer an option.
“Dad, if you need to go anywhere, give me a call,” his son had said.
Young Thomas Robert White was the principal at O’Neal Elementary School, a ten-minute drive from old Tom’s house.
“Whenever you need me, just call me,” young Tom had said. “I can be there in a few minutes.”
In the summer of 1969, old Tom White bought a riding lawn mower. This was an unnecessary purchase, because his front and back yards totaled around 1,800 square feet. A young man could have mown it in about twenty minutes. Young Tom doubted that there was even room to turn or manipulate a riding mower in his father’s fenced-in backyard. But he had an idea what his father planned to do with his new tool, and he was determined to stop it.
“Dad, I’m serious. Don’t try to go downtown on your own. Give me a call.”
It was a bright autumn afternoon, and George Hickman was in his office at Mark Twain Elementary School on Main Street, just a half-mile or so from old Tom White’s house. George and young Tommy Robert had become close friends since their elevation to principal status at two of Poplar Bluff’s largest elementary schools. They went fishing or camping together most weekends when the weather was nice, and their children were best friends.
George Hickman had just returned to his office after the last of the school lunch shifts had ended. A young delinquent sat nervously outside Mr. Hickman’s door. He had been guilty of throwing food across the cafeteria at lunch, and he was waiting to see Mr. Hickman to receive his punishment. George sat down at his desk and pulled the wooden paddle out of his bottom desk drawer. He laid the paddle on his desk and then called for the boy to come into his office. It always helped to have a visual reinforcement, George thought. He liked to show offenders just what was waiting for them if they repeated their misbehavior.
The student walked into the principal’s office, and George Hickman stood to meet him. As he stood up from his desk, he glanced out his office window, toward Main Street.
George saw an elderly man driving a riding lawn mower down the brick pavement of Main Street. He was right in the middle of the street, so that no one could pass him on either side. Traffic was backed up behind him for at least half a mile.
“Go back to class,” George snapped to the anxious student who stood before him. “I’ll call you back later.”
He picked up his office phone and dialed the number for O’Neal Elementary School.
“Hi, Mrs. Riggs,” George said when the secretary at the other end answered the phone. “This is George Hickman at Mark Twain. I need to speak to Mr. White right away, please.”
Thomas Robert White picked up the phone. “Hey, Tom,” George Hickman said. “I think you need to get over here right away. Your dad is driving a lawn mower down Main Street and blocking traffic all the way back to Barron Road.”
“Goddamn it!” Mr. White replied. “I told that old son of a bitch to call me if he needed to go anywhere! I knew he would pull some jackass thing like this. I’ll be right there.”
It was not hard to pick up his father’s trail. By the time young Tom made it to the area of Main Street, old Tom had caused a major blockage in one of the primary traffic arteries through the city. Cars northbound on Main Street were lined up by the curb, waiting for the old man to pass. Southbound cars were creeping along slowly behind the lawn mower. The line of automobiles had now stretched north to the city limit, and cars were starting to line up in the eastbound lane of Barron Road, unable to make the right-hand turn onto Main.
The line of traffic prevented young Tom from getting to his father or even seeing where his father was. When he got to the intersection of Barron and Main, he turned right, and then he drove up onto the curb so that he could get around the cars moving slowly south. He immediately realized that there was no hope of getting around the entire column. By this time the traffic jam covered about two miles of Main Street and a quarter mile of Barron Road. Tom turned right off of Main Street, into the city cemetery. He drove through the cemetery to where the path exited into a church parking lot to the south. This parking lot, in turn, opened onto Mill Street, with paralleled Main two blocks away to the west.
Young Tom drove quickly down Mill Street, stopping at each intersection to check the progress of the line of traffic to the east. Finally, when he got to the intersection of Mill and 9th Streets – more than a mile and a half south of Barron Road – he saw a clearing in the southbound traffic. He knew this meant that he had gotten ahead of the old man. He turned his car left onto 9th Street, and then he pulled onto Main.
Young Tom was ready when old Tom got to him. He stepped out into the street and held up his hand. Old Tom brought his riding lawn mower to a stop. Young Tom guided his father over to the side of the street.
“Dad, what in the hell were you thinking?”
“Well, I needed to go to the post office.”
“I told you to call me if you needed to go anywhere.”
“Jesus Christ, son, I don’t need you to treat me like a goddamn child. I can get to the post office on my own!”
“Dad, I’m not going through this with you again. You can’t drive your lawn mower downtown.”
“And why in hell can’t I?”
Young Tom paused for only a second. He knew his father well, and he had rehearsed this scenario on the way from the school.
He said, “Because next time I’m not coming to get you. I’m going to call the police and have them arrest you for driving an unlicensed vehicle on the street.”
Old Tom stopped. He thought about this for a few moments. Nobody had ever out-willed him before, and he was not quite sure what to do.
Finally, he said, “Well dad-burn son, I think you actually would!”
Lizzie Midkiff, grandmother of Thomas Robert White.