Volume VI, No. 4, Summer 1979
A VISIT WITH SHORTY CREWS
as told to Melinda Stewart
Photos by Lance Collins
"I took over three hundred melons to the nursing home this year." Shorty said. "Those people don't get those kinds of things down there. They don't get enough money for them."
Every year Olen "Shorty" Crews raises strawberries and many kinds of melons but he seldom sells them. Many times he has supplied the entire neighborhood with all the melons we could possibly use and more.
He also gives other things to people in the neighborhood, not so much the material things such as wood and food but friendship, loyalty and understanding.
When I moved here Shorty was one of the first rural Ozarkians I met. At once he, his wife Annie and I became good friends.
This is his story.
I was born in 1903 in a little town in Franklin County, Missouri. I can remember everything from the time I was two and a half years old when my grandfather built a new house. I was just a little shaver.
My mother was born in northern Italy in Milan. Her family immigrated here when she was six years old. She could speak Italian as well as anyone but she wouldn't let us speak it and she wouldn't speak it unless someone came that couldn't speak English. She never gave us a reason why. She just said, "you're born in this country, so you don't need any other language."
I stayed with my grandfather a lot when I was young. When I was only five years old I'd sneak off to the river and go fishing. In the old days you didn't have to buy hooks and lines. When people went fishing they'd make their lines up and set them against the bluff. Anybody was welcome to use them.
I wasn't big enough to punch a pole in the bank to set the lines. I'd have to take a rock and drive a hole. Then I'd take a chunk of wood along underneath the pole. The fish would have to pull down on the chunk in the place of pulling on the pole and unsettling the dirt which would pull the pole out. I've caught fish that I had to drag up the bank because I couldn't carry them.
My grandfather would meet me with the razor strap and work on the seat of my britches. Then we'd go to the house and clean and eat the fish. I'd go right back the next night. Getting a licking didn't bother me. I'd go back and do the same thing over. I stayed there with him till I was six years old.
My family stayed in St. Louis until 1909 and then we moved back to Walbert, Missouri. It's a little town on the Red Oak River that just had a store and a post office. We stayed there until 1910. Then we moved down on a farm on the Burgess River where we cleared off ninety acres of river bottom. After we cut the timber we put in corn. I plowed when I was ten years old with a plow and a team of horses. My brother was driving for me. I'd run under roots and when I couldn't take the plow out, I'd take the team and hook them to the back of the plow. Then I'd pull it out. We'd hook back up and go back plowing. We put in ninety acres of corn and tended it there.
We didn't have hard times at home. We had plenty of everything. We were never short of anything. Living on a farm made a lot of difference to living in the city.
My father built the house. There were so many squirrels that they'd run over the house on the clapboard roof and wake us up. It was nothing to look out of the door and see twenty-five or thirty squirrels running around the house.
And copperhead snakes! One year we killed ninety-six in the yard. I've been bitten seven times. Only the first one that bit me hurt me. I was only eight years old. It bit me on the side of the foot and liked to killed me. I stepped on a tie where he was underneath and he ran his head out and bit me. It was ten miles to the nearest doctor, and by the time the doctor got there, my leg was swelled to my knee, and my ankle was as big around as my thigh. My mother poured a pint of whiskey in me. I had never had a drink of it, not even a taste of it before. I drank a whole pint of whiskey. The doctor got to me about eight hours after the snake bit me and said that if it hadn't been for the snake bite, the whiskey would have killed me!
After I got through with that, my kid brother whacked my knee cap in two with a pole knife. It was about two months before I could even walk.
In 1913 my father and I walked from Salem, Missouri, to Eminence--fifty-five miles. We left Salem at six o'clock one morning and got to Eminence at one-thirty the next day. We couldn't stop anyplace for meals because during Prohibition, and even before, there were a lot of bootleggers. In most every hollow, at any time of the day, you could see a little curl of smoke coming up. You could go anywhere, set a jug down on a stump and stick a dollar bill in where the cork was, turn around and walk one hundred yards. Then when you'd come back, the jug would be full and the dollar would be gone. You never saw anyone. You didn't know whether to take a drink of it or not, for you didn't know if you'd be alive the next morning.
All you ever saw up there was a log cabin, a little patch of cane, a little patch of corn and about nine hound dogs to every place that you went to. You couldn't go up to any door because when you started up, as soon as you got about one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet from the door, somebody would stick up the muzzle of a loaded shotgun out there and say, "Move on thar, stranger," and you better not try to go up there because you'd get shot.
After we moved there I got a job and worked at the shoe factory. I've been making my own living since I was fourteen years old. I went to work at the Hamilton Brown Shoe Company in St. Louis and made thirteen dollars and two cents a week, for six days work, eight hours a day.
That spring there was the big flu epidemic. Everyone in our family (except my dad and me) got down with the flu. That was my two sisters, my brothers and my mother. My mother died on the sixteenth of January, 1919. If she would have lived until February seventeenth, she would have been thirty-nine years old.
That summer my aunt and uncle had taken the three youngest children and was caring for them. Dad, my oldest brother and myself worked in St. Louis about seven years. I got laid off, because the shoe production went down after the war, so I went to work at the American Cars foundry. I worked there for two or three years until 1926 when I left and joined the service in April.
I had two major accidents while I was in the service. I got thrown off a horse. He threw me as high as one of these trees out here, and I came straight down on my head on a macadamized road. I didn't even know where I was for thirty-two days. I laid for twenty-nine months in a hospital. Nine months I had to be turned on a sheet.
The pressure had built up on my spinal column so much they took a nine ounce tumbler and drained it. My eyes bugged out of my head, the pressure was so great. After I got up and got around, my doctor said, "I took my hands and shaped your head and wrapped gauze tape around it. You had an estimated 460 inches of fractures in your head. It was just as flat as this floor here." For three years I had a crack in my head about three inches long and as wide as my little finger. I could take a mirror, put it up there and I could see my pulse. There was nothing there.
Then I had another accident. A woman hit me in the head with a crank out of a 1928 Chevrolet and bent it just like she was bending a stick. It happened because I'd given her husband a good licking. He was our staff sergeant. It all started when he hit me. Two or three other guys and I were standing talking in the shade of a big oak tree on the river where we had a camp. He walked up drunk and wanted some ice water. We had run out of ice, so he wanted to know what we'd done with that 150 pounds of ice he'd sent over. There wasn't over seventy-five pounds of it. He called me everything under the sun, and I just told him, I said, "You step aside, mister. You may be our staff sergeant but I'll work you over with this piece of dry skeet wood so nobody will know you when they get you back to the hospital."
I forgot all about it. I went on up and was talking under the tree. He weighed about two hundred and ten pounds. He slipped up beside me. He hit me on the jaw bone and if I'd been expecting it he'd have broken my neck. But I wasn't looking for it and I was relaxed. I went flip! flop! boom! and landed on some of those palm leaf cactus. I drove twenty-seven of those spears into the seat of my britches. Now you're talking about putting fire into you, let me tell you, they put fire in a man!
I backed up on him and he made another run at me. I side-stepped him and just knocked teeth coming and going. I had been boxing every day, and I weighed about one hundred and ninety pounds and when I hit him in the mouth, the teeth just flew. He just went to his knees and then started again, and when he started the second time, I just stood on the one side and he hit with the other fist. Down he went again and I knocked him down five times, but I couldn't knock him out. He was drunk. When he came at me the sixth time, I broke my fist on his chin. He stumped his toe and the end of my fist caught on his chin and the bone stuck out of my hand. Then I hit him in the ribs and he just fell over. He didn't get up anymore then.
I started on down to the river to wash off the blood, stepped on a rolling rock and split the bone in my leg on up from my ankle six inches. I couldn't walk, but I started to hobble on down to the creek anyway when someone hollered, "Look out, Crews!" I wheeled around to see what was coming, and his wife hit me over the head with the crank. Boy, my lights really went out! Then I turned around and started to the river when they hollered again. All I could do was throw my arm up before she hit me. She cracked the bone in my arm.
I tried to talk to her. I said, "I don't want to have to hit you." Well, I couldn't if I wanted to but she didn't know it. I spent nine months in the hospital with a fractured skull, a broken fist, a cracked leg and a broken arm.
They were going to court-martial me for hitting a staff sergeant. I said, "No way, if you court-martial me, you court-martial him. He started it. I was just protecting myself."
I got out of the service on the eighteenth day of April, 1928, and came back to St. Louis. I put on a suit of clothes and I went to North St. Louis where I had worked five years loading sheet metal. I walked in the office and got a job, but they had to close it for the crash.
I wrote my dad a letter and said, "Is there any work in Detroit?" He said, "Come on up. All the work you want." I went up there, worked only for two weeks then they had to shut down because there was no lumber. They were waiting for a trainload of lumber. They didn't buy it by the car, they bought it by the trainload, fifty cars of lumber. I worked there until they wanted to cut us and we walked out.
I stayed out of the service one year and two months before I went back and was in six more years in Des Moines, Iowa. I could have made a career out of it, but they wouldn't let me re-enlist because I got married without permission.
I enlisted three times and at the time of the third enlistment I had been married one and a half years. We weren't supposed to get married below the first three grades in the army because of the Articles of War, but I didn't ask them.
They didn't know about it until my first daughter was born. She was born in the city hospital in Des Moines and I paid for it. They tried for a full week to find something they could try me on. They couldn't try me on anything.
Then in 1935 I got jammed up in a car. The captain was driving and he hit two holes, doing sixty-five miles an hour. When he hit the first eighteen inch dip in the road my head hit the top of a 1935 Plymouth and I left the shape of my head in the car. When we hit the second hole my knees went past my head and left prints in the metal. I was jarred in there. They poured a quart of Scotch whiskey in me. It never affected me. It took me six months to straighten up. My back still bothers me some.
After the service I worked in a mine at Desloge, Missouri ten years, five on top and five underground. The mine was lead, zinc and some copper. It was one of the largest mines in the world. There were lots of places in the mine down there that are just big rooms. They look like cathedrals. When I left there they had over 3,700 miles of railroad underground. There were five to seven levels. I ran a machine down there, building a spur, a siding switch that holds forty cars. Seven of us worked on it for a week. We had it all finished and walked out at ten o'clock to eat dinner. While we were sitting eating dinner, we heard the back rip. It sounded like thunder. I said, "Boy, there's a cave-in somewhere." We walked down there where we laid the track and there was ten feet of rock on it that fell out between the pillars. We had to build a new track in a new place because it would have cost too much to move the rock.
I've done a little of everything under the sun, steam fitting, electrical wiring, plumbing, just about everything. You name it, I've done it. I may not do as much of it as other people, but I guarantee I can do part of what he can do a lot of. A job is a job. It doesn't make any difference about what I do and I do a good job of it.
I've never, in all my life, had anyone to complain about anything I've done because I do it the way I'd like anyone to do it for me--do it and do it neat. And I've never tried to beat anybody out of an hour's work in my life. I'd rather give him two hours' work than to beat him out of thirty minutes.
And I trust anybody, I don't care who it is. I'll take him at his word, but if he don't do what he tells me, I'm through with him absolutely. I wouldn't give him a nickel. If he was in the river drowning and hollering for help and I had another bucket of water, I'd throw it on him. That's just the way I feel. I don't want nobody beating me, and I don't want to cheat anybody.
I've worked lots of places, but I'd rather be in Missouri than any other state in the Union. We've got everything. I've traveled all over the states, in almost every state in the Union and none will compare. People run all over the country trying to see pretty scenery and we have it in Missouri. We've got coal, oil, gas, hydroelectrics, timber, minerals and enough farm land, too.
I met Annie up here. I've been married three times. My first wife and I had two daughters, Delores and Margaret Ann. We were divorced. My second wife died in 1960. Annie and I went together and corresponded for two years. Finally I came up here and we got married. I asked her where she wanted to live. I'd live anywhere I could make a living. We've lived here seventeen years in this house.
I haven't worked publicly since 1955 I didn't have to. I could make more money by working for myself than I could make by working at any company. I go down here and saw wood and buy my own gas and oil and my chain saw. I saw wood down there and I charge fifteen dollars a rank. I can cut a rank in an hour. There's not another man around here that I know of that can saw as much wood as I do. I never take a watch with me. When I go out to work, I go to work not to look at the timepiece to see what time it is. I don't get tired and I don't get hungry. I can work eight hours without getting hungry or tired.
As far as this old world, it's been kind to me. I've never seen a time when I didn't have a job that paid good money. Money is necessary, but it isn't necessary that you have a pile of it.
I keep physically fit by working. If I quit working and just sat down, a year and a half from today somebody would have to buy an overcoat for me, a wooden one. I've seen too many of them that worked down in the mines for thirty years, worked till they were sixty-five years old and retired. And I can name at least twenty-five people that died--that just went home and sat down.
I was in the hospital with a heart attack and the doctor said, "You can't do this and that." I said, "I'm going to go ahead and do what I've been doing all my life. When the Good Man tells me it's time for me to go, there isn't nothing you people in this hospital can do that will do me any good. I can give you all the money I got in the world, and you still can't keep me from going. Whenever He gets ready for me, there ain't nothing anyone can do about it.
I don't fear death because I know when it's my turn to go I'll go. Your body will last you just so long, like an automobile. You can repair it so many times and when the final time comes, your repairs don't do you any good.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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