Things change. A statement of fact. As you grow older your aims, goals and dreams change as you respond to life. Situations arise and circumstances change. These changes and situations will alter your life. There was a tragic accident in my life that changed my circumstances and my situation. This is the story of that tragedy and my life afterwards.
My name is William Ambrose Connelly, please don't ever call me Ambrose, I am named after two of my ancestors. I answer to William or Will, but not to Bill or Willie. At the time of my story, I had just turned 25 and was full of myself. As with most young men, I knew everything and was smarter than everyone else. I was young, strong, and invincible; that is until life jumped up and slapped me in the face.
I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after high school so I enlisted in the Army and spent three years in the service of my country. Once my enlistment was up, I was still sort of drifting at age 21. I bounced around for another two years until an opportunity came up. My best friend Ron and his family owned a motorcycle shop and Ron got me a job as a journeyman mechanic.
I had always been a pretty good jack leg mechanic and maybe I could have a career working on motorcycles; at least it was a way to earn a living until I decided what direction my life would take. I was still there after two years with no thoughts of moving on to something else. Ron worked in sales and in the front office and would take over the business someday.
When I started at the shop, there was some natural resentment from the other mechanics toward me. I was a friend of the owner's son and they didn't think I would pull my own weight. They found out different within the first few weeks. I did the journeyman type work on the bikes, did clean up around the shop and grounds, helped with stocking of parts, and any other job that needed to be done. It wasn't long before they knew that I was one of them and not just a freeloading friend of the owner's son.
There was a family reunion being held at the lower end of Johnson Shut-Ins State Park in Missouri. The Shut-Ins are an area of granite rock and boulders thrust up by volcanoes, millions of years ago. The Black River flows through these rocks creating water slides, deep pools, and great swimming holes. These rocks sort of "shut in" the river and turned the waterway into a play ground. Hence the name Shut-Ins. It's a nice area and a beautiful place to play in the water, climb the rocks surrounding the river and just generally have a good time.
The reunion was a big deal lasting seven or eight days and my family were there in force. Dad, Mom, my two younger brothers and an older sister went to the reunion. The whole family, including my grandparents, drove down from St. Louis on Wednesday and planned to stay until Sunday. I wasn't able to go as I was working.
The family reunion was scheduled at a very busy time of the year for the motorcycle shop because the new models were arriving. They had to be taken out of the crates, assembled, tuned, and made ready for the sales floor. Getting these bikes ready was part of my job as the junior man at the shop. Because of this influx of new bikes, I wasn't able to go to the family reunion until the weekend. I planned on leaving very early Saturday morning for the three hour ride.
I guess the other mechanics had accepted me because two of them gave me a hand getting the new bikes ready. They even stayed after hours on two nights to help me. Because of their help I planned to leave work at noon on Friday and ride my Harley to the reunion. I never made it.
Friday morning at 2:45 A.M., the Taum Sauk Reservoir Dam broke. It sent over a billion gallons of water rushing downstream through Johnson Shut Ins Park. My whole family was killed in the flood. We had a radio on at the shop during the morning and heard the news bulletin about the catastrophe. The state had set up a hot line for information on the victims. I called and found out about my family. At 25, I was all alone.
There were arrangements to be made and it was up to me to do them all. I organized the funerals for my parent's, my brothers and sister. It was a service that encompassed the five of them. Then I had to do it again for my grandparents. My dad had been their only child and I was the only family member left to handle those things for them; I matured very quickly during this period. I may have only been 25 physically but mentally I felt like an old man.
Several times at both of the funerals, people came up to talk to me. In addition to expressing their condolences a lot of them would tell me I could be my dad's twin when he was my age. I had never thought much about looking like my dad, but according to those people I did.
Dad and I were both about 6 feet 3. He weighed a bit more than my solid 200 pounds. Even though his hair was more salt and pepper now, I had the same dark hair he had when he was younger. The only difference between us was my blue eyes.
A month later, my dad's attorney told me I was the sole heir to my parent's estate. Estate is a legal term; it didn't mean I was independently wealthy. I was left with a house with no mortgage, two fairly substantial bank accounts, some personal items, and a broken heart. My folks had been my rock, always there for me and always on my side no matter what.
I sold the house for a little less than it was worth, but I wanted a quick sale. All I wanted was to get away, away from the grief and away from being reminded that my family was gone. I rented a storage unit and packed everything I wanted to keep into it. My dad's guns, some of his hunting gear, some pictures, and a few heirlooms that my mother had, went into storage. I paid a year's rental on the unit. The rest of the contents of the house; the clothes, furniture, and the items I didn't want were donated to charity.
A few days before I closed on the sale of the house, a lawyer came to see me. He wanted me to sign a class action suit against the Ameren Utility Company. They were the ones that built and ran the Taum Sauk electric dam. The lawyer said I could possibly end up with two million dollars.
As I listened to him and saw the greed in his face, I asked, "Can I have my family back instead?"
He just looked at me, shook his head, and started to talk about money again. It was a big mistake on his part to continue to talk about getting money from my family's death. Did you know that lawyers fly pretty good when propelled by a boot in the ass? He must have gone 8 or 10 feet before he touched down. Needless to say, that was the last time I was contacted by him or any other shyster.
After the house sold, I put the money into one of the accounts at the bank; I packed a few things, and hit the road. There was no reason to stay in St. Louis anymore. My Harley, a Heritage Softail Classic, and I headed south. It wasn't until I was half way to my destination that I realized where I was going. Back to my roots I guess you could say, back to the area of my family's heritage. A little town in south east Missouri named Van Buren.
Van Buren is a small town of about a thousand residents about three to four hours south and a little west of St. Louis. It is sort of nestled in a valley among the mountains of the Ozarks. At one time it was just a farming community, but the biggest income producer has become the tourist trade. Current River, a spring fed, clear, and clean stream that separates the north and south side of town is the reason for the rise of the tourist industry.
During the summers of my youth, I spent a lot of time running up and down Current River in a john boat and knew the river well. My friends and I would also take long float trips using inner tubes that would last four or five hours. I learned to stay off the river after heavy rains or during the spring rains and thaw. The stream was fast moving and dangerous in places, especially for the novice boater. But it was my playground. Other kids played ball, I ran the river.
Jack's Fork was another river in the area that brought the tourists. The Ozarks region covers southern Missouri and down into northern Arkansas. It is an area of hills or mountains, deep valleys, and beautiful clear waterways. This is the area where I grew up.
My Harley and I arrived on Thursday afternoon and cruised through Van Buren on Main Street. I noticed a few changes since the last time I was there four years ago. There were more tourist type shops, a new bridge and highway spanned Current River and some of the houses on the south side had been torn down because of the new roadway. I had spent every summer and every school holiday in this small town from the age of 10 until I turned 17. By the time I turned 17, I had my driver's license and I was too cool to return to that little hick town. I wanted to stay in the city with my friends.
Now, that little "hick" town and the area around it was just what I needed. The death of my family left me adrift and I needed to reconnect with who I was and where I came from. I could do that in Van Buren and the surrounding area. It's was full of wonderful memories of when I was growing up.
I spent the night at Smalley's Motel which has been there longer than I have been alive. It wasn't fancy, no internet, no cable T.V.; no T.V. at all because reception is so bad in the valley. All you got was a comfortable bed, a roof over your head, and the best breakfast ever. After eating, I climbed on my bike and headed out of town on Highway 60 to a certain farm about 20 miles northwest of town.
.... There is more of this story ...