That summer a wayward polio virus found my Daddy and attacked. He was 9 years old and living in the relative isolation of a small hamlet in the Ozarks. Had he lived in a city ghetto, it is likely that he would have had enough frequent sub-clinical exposures that it wouldn’t have amounted to much, but in his case, like that of much more famous Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his isolation from other children had left him vulnerable to the most virulent form of the disease. I was far in the future, of course, but when I took an epidemiology class at the University of Minnesota I learned that before the polio vaccine was developed, more people had polio than measles, most thought the mild infection was a summer cold and didn’t associate it with the much feared infantile paralysis.
The events that happened before my birth I learned about from family stories, many of them told by my Daddy, and sometimes other versions from relatives and friends. Everybody I knew or know in the Ozarks is a story teller. The oral tradition is still alive and well, but waning in the beginning of the 21st Century as personal interaction gives way to technology. This is a sad loss as the old stories bind people together in a shared heritage that is rapidly slipping away into individual isolation. A wise Rabbi I once knew told me that the biggest mistake ever made was writing down the Bible. So long as it was oral lore, it could be changed to fit if circumstances changed. Once it was written down, they were stuck. He had a point.###
My Daddy’s name was Thomas Alton Carnell, but he decided he was better suited to be called Bill and he stuck with that for the rest of his life except for legal requirements. This early show of independence and self-perception were key parts of his personality. Polio, the Ozarks and later, a woman with a sweet disposition and a spine of steel were to prove benchmarks in the way his life evolved and therefore the lives of his children. I have no doubt that they affect how I see myself today.
Times were already hard when Daddy got sick. His mom, my Grandma Babe, had died three years before from complications of a pregnancy. She remained a beautiful saintly ghost that was always in the background of our lives. Once in a while we would get out the family photos and comment on how pretty she was, how her dark eyes were apparent even in the sepia picture and how much my sister looked like her. Daddy was the youngest of her four children, a winsome, incredibly bright child with black hair, eyes so dark brown that you could hardly see the pupils; he had a strong and athletic little body – the fastest runner in the neighborhood, he said. I have a picture of him wearing a little sailor suit with a wide brimmed straw hat tipped back on his head. Ii shows what a cute child he was. At six he was just at the last age when I mother would want to nuzzle his neck and soak up that heavenly “little-boy smell”.
He grew up to be a very good looking man. That isn’t just a statement of a proud daughter; many a woman told me that he was movie-star handsome. When he was born, the nurse who helped deliver him said he was the prettiest baby she had ever seen. Just some of the stories I was told about his early years and the history of my family. These stories bound me in silken bonds to the other members of the family. It seemed that everyone was worthy of a story that made them unique while at the same time linked with the entire clan.
Daddy was precocious. When his parents of older siblings refused to read the comic Katzenjammer Kids to him, he set about learning to read on his own. It is well known family lore that he was only four years old when he accomplished it. Something that his children were unable to do and I know I always felt a little inadequate that I had not been that bright. His father, my Grandpa Tom, faced with four motherless children didn’t waste any time in finding a new woman to care for them. He found a young widow of good family who had recently lost her husband in a mining accident; she was looking for security and a place in society. Grandma Annie and her boy, Sonny joined the family in the fall of 1910. The next year a half -brother was born completing the cast of characters on one side of my family.
Perhaps Grandpa Tom should have taken a little more time to check out his options before choosing a young widow-woman with a temper like a wildcat. They rarely got along and though they never divorced, they lived together only sporadically after the children were older. Since Grandma Annie and Uncle Son lived across the street from our house, Grandpa Tom would appear once in a while in my life. I thought he hung the moon because he always catered to my whims. Grandma Annie seemed to take special delight in tormenting Daddy, especially after he could no longer walk and get away easily. When he came down with polio and had a high fever, it was assumed by the local doctor that he had meningitis. He was packed in ice for seven days and when he emerged, his right leg was withered and his spine was painfully curved.
Thirty two years later, I had the same disease at age 6, but I was much more fortunate in that I was not nearly so seriously damaged. Our common history was an unspoken bond between us, but the real story is the effect of Daddy’s being physically crippled on his outlook on life and how he coped with its limitations, the circumstances of where he lived and how he raised his family.
In the early 1900’s children were economic assets as they provided much needed labor to help the family survive. At least that is how it worked in the rural Ozarks. Being disabled was no excuse to be a slacker. Grandpa Tom had many different enterprises. From 1904 to 1912, he had been the Sheriff of McDonald County, MO. He was also a farmer, a merchant, and later a guard at the State Prison. When Daddy was a young boy, after he became crippled, Grandpa Tom owned a saw mill. Daddy had to be useful, so he was assigned to go down into the sawmill pit and toss out the barked slabs that remained after the usable boards were sawed. He once told me about the biggest log he ever saw and how many board feet of lumber it yielded. Sadly, I didn’t write it down and have no idea how big that virgin timber log was.
Another epic year was 1918 – the year World War I ended and Spanish Flu sickened or killed millions. Daddy fell ill to the point that (as Grandpa Tom later told me) “I left the house thinking I would never see him alive again.” That tough little boy did survive and not far away a six year old girl nearly suffered the same fate. She was to be my Mom. She was so ill and her recovery so slow that she missed an entire year of school. Tragedy added to the difficulty of that year. Only after the war ended on November 11, 1911, Mom’s oldest brother Clancy died of flu and/or pneumonia in France. The awful telegram came at a time when there was much sickness in the Big Sugar Creek Valley. Mom told me that the only thing that kept my grandmother from losing her mind was she was too busy caring for the family and neighbors who were too ill to do their chores. Like Grandma Babe, Uncle Clancy remained a presence in the family – a handsome cowboy who went straight from a Montana sheep ranch to Ft. Riley, KS to join the Army. He didn’t go home to visit first as he said it would be too hard to leave from there. Photos of Uncle Clancy were handed about with reverence so long as his parents and siblings lived. I have the little cane bottom chair that was made for him as an infant. Four generations of toddlers have sat on it and been told the story of Uncle Clancy’s short life.
McDonald is a strange little microcosm located in the middle of the U.S. It would be easy to think it would be a blend of many regional ways of life – perhaps it was as it was curiously different from other cultures I have lived in or read about. There is an overarching southern, Scots-Irish mountain way of life on the surface, but it has produced some quirky and odd people that are strangely funny and endearing. As a young person, I was inordinately proud to be from McDonald County. I was astonished to learn that I wasn’t actually born there. I was in college before I realized that the hospital where I was born in Stella, Missouri was actually slightly over the border in Newton County. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the map. How had that escaped my attention for 18 years? Mom and I went home when I was three days old, so I suppose you could say that I got there as soon as I could. That pride has led me to defend McDonald County most of my life. Non-residents seem to take great delight in denigrating and poking fun at us as if we were more “hillbilly” and backward than they.
Yes, we are slow to change our ways, there is no city of any size and the population of the whole county is still fewer than 25,000 souls. Add in the astounding percentage who can trace ancestors back more than 100 years and the resulting intricate kinships, it isn’t surprising that it might get a little confusing to strangers. Given that human nature seems to be in constant need of finding a group to look down on in order to fluff up their own egos, McDonald County residents were sitting ducks– poor with few prospects, little opportunity to escape its borders to learn more about a bigger world and not inclined to leave anyway. It was a small Eden with a moderate climate, lots of pristine water, good bottom land to farm and warm social connections. What more could you hope for? I grew up in cozy little Dog Holler. To this day, if I see too much sky, it makes me nervous. The high prairie or the open sea leaves me exposed like a bug, too visible and vulnerable. I am happiest surrounded by lots of trees, and a small moving stream nearby. Water that is too still bothers me, too. Depths unknown, possibly weedy and all kinds of creatures poised to do me great harm. No thank you.
As an example, they had no advance notice of Haley’s Comet so when it flew over the sky looking “like a wash tub on fire” according to Daddy, the mothers hysterically gathered their children to them certain that the end of the world had come. Poor as Job’s turkey, residents realized that they had better cling together in order to survive. My birth in 1940 allowed me to witness a seismic change in culture from that of the 17th Century and earlier to the 21st.