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.
This farm and the people that own it were part of my past, my heritage, and my family. Uncle Lewis and Aunt Mary had lived on their farm for what seemed forever. They were actually my dad's Aunt and Uncle. I was 10 when I started staying with them during the summer breaks from school. Even at 10, I was expected to help with the farm and do my share of the chores.
It was the best education I could have received. Uncle Lewis was the one that helped instill discipline and responsibility in me. I learned many things during those summers, from driving a mule team to running a tractor and a lot in between. Feeding the stock, gathering eggs from the chicken pen, cleaning the horse stalls and working in the fields were all part of my education. They had only one child, a son who lived on the west coast and got back when he could. Luckily he hadn't been able to come back for the family reunion. I never learned why Lewis and Mary didn't go to the reunion.
The most important things I learned were how to be a good person and a good man. I don't mean a goody two shoes type of guy. I mean I learned to keep my word, to work until the job was done, and to be responsible for my actions. It was a great period of my young life; I just didn't know it at the time.
I thought I would surprise Lewis and Mary with my visit. As I pulled up next to the house, I saw Uncle Lewis sitting on the porch. Lewis was in his late seventies and had worked on the farm since he was 12. Over 60 years of hard work on the farm had marked him. His face was weathered like an old piece of leather and his hands were gnarled and creased with scars. One hand was missing the first joint of his pinkie and ring finger.
When he was asked what happened to his fingers, he always said he froze them off picking strawberries. That was what most people who knew him well called him, "Strawberry". Working a farm for over to sixty years is hard on a man. Uncle Lewis never stood up; he waited as I shut down the bike and walked over to him.
"Wondered when you would show up, what took you so long?" There was no how are you? Sorry to hear about your folks or what are you doing here? Just what took you so long? "I knew you would come here to heal up."
I sat down on the porch swing with him and said, "Had things to take care of before I could leave."
Uncle Lewis had always treated me like a grown man, even when I was 10. He had never talked down to me, and treated me like an equal. For one of the few times he showed physical affection to me. He reached over, squeezed my shoulder and said, "I am sorry as hell about your folk's boy. You're welcome here as long as you need to be here."
I almost lost it. Aunt Mary came out to the porch saying, "Lewis did I hear someone drive up?" Then she saw me and rushed over to me and took me in her arms. Then I did lose it, tears started running down my face. I hadn't cried at my parent's and sibling's funeral, or at my grandparent's services, so I guess I let it all out sitting there with them.
It's funny, Mary was only about 5 feet 4 and almost as wide as she was tall, but even at 6 feet 3, I felt like a young boy again as she held me until I finished grieving. She was the stereotypical grandmother figure. The years on the farm had been hard on her too and she was getting close to eighty. Mary was almost as weathered as Lewis but she had love enough for the whole county. If there has ever been a finer woman, I've never met her. It was close to five minutes before I could gather myself and resume talking to them. Uncle Lewis wanted to know if I had any plans.
"Well, I want to run the river for a day or two and then I thought I might get a job at the saw mill or catch on with a farm that needs someone with a strong back and not much experience." I laughed a little at my last statement.
"William, this place hasn't been more than a hobby farm in ten years, but we could start it up again, if you've a mind to. I've got the tractor and all the equipment we would need. It would be a hard road, but any profit would be all yours," Uncle Lewis offered. He was in his seventies and should be resting from his years of hard work, but was ready to work like a dog by my side if I needed him. That's the type of man he was and the type of man he taught me to be.
"I don't think I know enough to run a farm. Be better off being told what to do. Besides I don't need a lot, just enough for a trip to town twice a month or so and gas for the bike." I really didn't want Lewis to overextend himself at his age. Lewis had been almost 6 feet tall in his prime; the years of working dawn to dusk and age had shrunk him to about 5 feet 10. He was whipcord slim at 165 pounds.
"Lewis, what about Molly? She needs a hand with her place," Aunt Mary suggested. He nodded his head, agreeing with her. Aunt Mary continued, "Molly Swanson and her husband bought the old Bailey place and were going to farm it. I guess her husband decided he didn't want to be a farmer about six months after they moved onto the property, and he left her. They are divorced now and she needs help with the farm. She hasn't been able to hire anyone. I can guess why." Mary didn't elaborate as to the why.
"If she knows what needs doing, I can do it. And the Bailey place is only five miles or so; it wouldn't be far to ride every day. Think we might call her in a day or two?" Now I had a plan and an idea of what to do with myself. At least for the next few months.
"We'll go over after chores on Monday morning, honey," Aunt Mary said. "You can give me a ride on that motor sickle thing of yours. Always wanted to ride on one of those." She laughed at the surprise on my face.
The next morning was a trip back in time for me. I gathered eggs with Aunt Mary and slopped the hogs and fed the horses and mules with Uncle Lewis. Just like the summers when I was younger. Then I went to Current River and spent the rest of the day playing in the water. The second day on the river I ran into Jim Barnes, one of the boys that I ran with when I was younger. If I was a river rat, Jim was a water dog. He knew the river better than I did, and that's saying a lot. When no one else could catch anything, Jim would always come home with a stringer full of fish.
We greeted each other and caught up on what had been going on in our lives. I told him I was going to live with Lewis and Mary for awhile and why. I mentioned to him that I hoped to get a john boat to cruise the river with before too long.
"No need to buy one," Jim said. He tossed me a padlock key and told me, "My boat is down at the Chicopee swimming hole. Remember where it's at? Use the boat as much as you want, just refill the gas tank."
Chicopee was a wide part of the river with sort of a small bay and the favorite swimming hole of the kids on the south side of Van Buren. I got Jim's boat and spent the rest of that day running up and down the river. I went to some of the old fishing holes, checked out some of the white water, and had a great time. It was getting dark by the time I brought Jim's boat back after filling the gas tank.
Around 9:00 on Monday morning, Aunt Mary came out to where I was waiting by my Harley. She looked like one of the women in the old pictures of people riding in a Model T. Aunt Mary had on this big wide brimmed hat tied down with a scarf and a long full skirt. I saw her and laughed until my sides hurt. I don't think she understood what I found so funny.
"Aunt Mary, that hat will last for about two minutes and that skirt will get caught in the wheels," I told her still laughing. "Why don't you put on a pair of jeans or work pants? I've got a hat in my saddle bags or you can wear my helmet."
She was changed and back in five minutes. I gave her my helmet to wear and we took off for Mrs. Swanson's. We had been on the road for just about two minutes when Mary started laughing and screaming at me to go faster. I think I had made a convert to motorcycles out of her.
I took the long way around to Mrs. Swanson's because Aunt Mary was having such a good time. It was an hour's ride around the mountain, but I had nowhere else to go. We pulled into the yard of the old Bailey farm and I shut the bike down. I had to help Aunt Mary off the bike; she had gotten a little stiff on the hour ride.
A woman that I assumed was Mrs. Swanson came out to meet us. I was checking over the bike and putting the helmet away and didn't see her until she had already started talking to Aunt Mary.
Aunt Mary said, "Molly this is my nephew William, William this is Molly Swanson." I stood up and turned to meet the lady and almost tripped over my feet. Mrs. Molly Swanson was a very good looking woman.
I had pictured someone around 50 and sort of a farmer's wife type. Molly couldn't have been more than 31 or 32 years old, actually I found out later she was 30. She was tall about 5 feet 9 with a slender figure. Light brown hair shading to blond and the greenest eyes I have ever seen. I saw all this in just a few seconds as I tried to keep from falling all over myself.
"Hello William, it's nice to meet you," Molly said.
"Lik ... Lik ... Likewise Mrs. Swanson," I said, being the silver tongued devil that I am.
"Oh please, just Molly is good enough for neighbors."
I nodded and Aunt Mary began her selling job. She told Molly that I was going to be living with her and Uncle Lewis for the foreseeable future and could use a job. Mary said I was a hard worker and not too dumb so I could be taught anything I didn't already know. (Thanks Aunt Mary)
Mary told her that I had thought about the saw mill but would rather work with the land if I could. "He worked for us and we never had any complaints, even if he is family. William would give you an honest day labor, Molly."
"William, I would like to give you a try. Can you work for three hundred a week? That's about the best I can offer right now," Molly told me. "I'll also feed you breakfast and lunch."
"Mrs. Swanson, I mean Molly, that's top hand wages. I'll work hard for you, but I'm not a top hand. You or Uncle Lewis will probably have to teach me a lot. Let's give it a try at $250 a week until I can earn top hand wages." I really didn't need much money; I had no bills and was staying with Lewis and Mary. They wouldn't let me pay room and board so I could put most of the money away.
I had a job and Molly had a new hand to help with the farm. Molly said, "You will probably teach me as much as I can teach you. I'm a city girl, or was until I landed here. I'll see you around 6:00 tomorrow morning William. We'll put in a couple of hours and then have breakfast." Molly said good bye to Mary and went back to the house.
Aunt Mary had to poke me in the ribs to get my attention. I was watching Molly walk away in those tight jeans she wore. "None of that William, you're over here to work. Who taught you how to make deals anyway, the Easter Bunny? You gave away $50 a week. Remind me never to let you buy a horse for me. Let's go, I want to ride that motor sickle some more." I definitely had Mary hooked.
We really took the long road home because Aunt Mary wanted to go into town. She wanted to show off to her friends that she was on a bike and I picked up some jeans, work shirts, and a pair of work boots. We got back to the farm in time for the evening chores and for Mary to make supper.
While eating dinner Uncle Lewis said, "Boy, if Mary makes me buy her a motorcycle, I'm going to beat you with a board. That bike is all she's talked about since y'all got back." He started laughing.
I called it a night pretty early, big day tomorrow. My alarm woke me at 4:00 and my day started. I went down, grabbed some day old coffee and went to the barn. The stalls had to be mucked out and new straw put down. Uncle Lewis had three horses and two mules that were more pets than work animals, but their stalls still needed cleaning. By 4:45 I was on my way to Molly's.
Around 5:30, Molly came into the barn where I was mucking out more stalls. "I thought I told you 6:00, William?"
"Yes' em you did, but I cleaned the stalls at Uncle Lewis and couldn't see the sense of sitting around till 6:00. Thought I would get a jump on the chores around here."
So the days went by, I would do some chores at Uncle Lewis' and go to Molly's and start work early. If things were in hand at home, I would just show up earlier at Molly's. For the first time since I lost my family, I felt like I had purpose and direction to my life. I was just a hired farm hand, but someone depended on me.
Two months rolled past and Molly and I became comfortable with each other. There was some doubt as to who was the boss because I knew more than she did about running a farm. But we were more than employer and employee, we became friends and there were little kidding comments back and forth.
I think Molly was just a kid at heart. One day I was complaining about how hot the job was and Molly poured a bucket of water on me. She was laughing so hard she fell down next to me in the mud. Very quickly a mud fight arose and we both were covered head to foot by the time we stopped.
A few days later I was repairing a hole in a stock watering tank and was bent over the side reaching down into the tank. The water had been partially drained so I could get to the hole. As I stretched down over the edge of the tank to find the hole, Molly grabbed my leg, lifted up and I fell into the water, clothes and all. She laughed so hard; I thought she would hurt herself.
Molly was a prankster and a joker. She would throw an egg at me as I went from one job to another or squirt me with the hose, and a lot of other pranks. But if I was doing something extra hard or a little dangerous she was right there with me. It wasn't like I worked for her; it was more that we worked together.
One thing that Molly always did endeared her to me. If the bike got mud on it or was dusty, she would take a soft cloth and wipe off the bike before I left for the day. I told her that it would just get dusty on the way back to Uncle Lewis' but she said at least it would start out clean. Nice lady and I began to wonder if the difference in our ages was that big of a deal.
During those two plus months, I learned a lot more about Molly. She had still been living with her parents until about four years ago. At 26 maybe she was a little old to still be at home, but there was nowhere else she wanted to be. Her folks were well to do, not rich but comfortable. She wasn't a drain on them because Molly worked as a fashion consultant to a large department store chain and made her own money.
She met Gerald Swanson at a fund raiser for a charity that her father was involved with. Gerald was charming, a little older, and seemed to be genuinely interested in Molly. Gerald took her to all the fancy restaurants, the fashionable clubs, and correct social events. He didn't sweep her off her feet but she did enjoy his attentions and his company.
Gerald proposed to her after a year of dating. She was 27 and was fond of Gerald so she agreed and after a short engagement they got married. About a year after they married, Molly's parents were killed in a boating accident on Lake Michigan.
Molly and Gerald had been married a little over two years when they made a visit to the Van Buren area. Never did find out why they came to our area. Molly fell in love with the area and Gerald purchased the Bailey farm and gave it to Molly as a belated wedding present. Once Molly had lived at the farm for a few months you couldn't have moved her out with a bulldozer. Gerald wasn't happy, left her and then divorced her. So there Molly was a divorced 30 year old woman and living on a farm with no idea on how to run it.
There was a barn dance at one of the farms close by and as we were cleaning up one evening, I asked Molly who she was going with. I hadn't seen any indication of a man in her life, but I didn't think she would miss the dance. This type of thing was about the only social life in the area.
"I'm not going to the dance, Will. I would have to go alone. Few of the men here want to date a divorced woman and the one's that do are just trying to get me into bed," she answered with some bitterness.
"Sorry, didn't mean to rub a sore spot. I just thought someone as pretty as you would have guys all over the place. Oops, sorry."
"You're sorry that you think I'm pretty Will?" Molly was teasing me.
I shook my head and went back to the tractor I was working on. You dummy now you've made her sad about not going to the dance, I thought to myself. That evening after dinner, I told Uncle Lewis I needed to talk to him. He and I walked out to the barn and had a smoke together; him with his pipe and me with the one cigar a day that I smoke.
"Uncle Lewis, I want to ask Molly to go to the barn dance this Saturday. I know she wants to go but she won't go alone. Do you think it would be okay?"
"Why are you asking me boy?"
"I don't want to do anything that would embarrass you or Aunt Mary. I may be young but I'm not stupid. Molly is divorced and about 5 years older than me. If I took her to the dance, it might cause talk. Hell ... with the busy bodies that live around here it will cause talk."
"William age is just a number. Mary is seven years older than me, did you know that? Molly is a nice woman that has been dealt a bad hand in life. You are a good man and being young doesn't change that. Were me, I'd do just what I want and let those that will talk piss up a rope." Uncle Lewis was laughing as he finished.
"Thanks Uncle Lewis. It's only 7:00, I'm going to ride back to Molly's and ask her. If she says no, well it's still a nice night for a ride."
When I got to Molly's place, I gunned the bike so she would hear me drive up. It's hard to miss the Harley's pipes but I didn't want to surprise her. She came to the door, saw that it was me, and came out onto her porch.
"What are you doing back Will, did you forget something?"
"Yeah, Molly. I forgot to ask you to go to the barn dance with me. I should have done it when you told me you weren't going. I can borrow Lewis' truck if you don't want to ride there on my bike." Now I held my breath waiting for her answer.
"I'm too old for you Will and I'm divorced and a Yankee. Around here that's a deadly combination. It would cause a lot of talk. I don't know if it's a good idea."
"Molly, the smartest man I know, Uncle Lewis, says that age is just a number and I think he's right. As far as talk, they don't like you anyway because you're divorced and a Yankee so you've got nothing to lose there. Yeah, I have heard the gossip and rumors in town. As for me, I only care what my friends or family think. So let's go have a good time and rub their noses in the fact that we don't care what they think. It will really piss them off." See, told you I was a silver tongued devil. What a smooth way to talk a lady into going out with me.
Molly was giggling at my speech. "Okay William, let's go just to piss off the busybodies and if we have a good time it's even better. And I would love to ride that Hog to the dance."
Saturday evening as I walked to the bike, Aunt Mary called to me and then joined me. "William, be a gentlemen. Molly doesn't need a jerk in her life."
"Aunt Mary, it's just a couple of friends going to a dance. You helped raise me so you know I will behave myself. Good night, don't wait up.," I kissed her cheek before leaving.
Once again, I racked the pipes off so Molly would know it was me. Before I could get to her door, she came out to meet me. WOW, was all I could say. Molly had on a tight pair of jeans, a shirt tied under her breasts showing her smooth stomach, and cowboy boots. Her hair was in a pony tail and it made her look years younger.