|Vol. VII, No. 3, Spring 1994|
by R. B.. Mullinix
I sat on the edge of the feed dock at Jess Burlison's Grocery and Feed Store in Omaha, about a mile and a couple of dog legs south of the Missouri-Arkansas state line, stingily sipping and chewing a bottle of Nehi peach soda into which I'd poured a bag of salted goobers, waiting for the twilight to thicken enough for the picture show to begin. Roy Leatherman and Ott Loard and Jack and Aud Claymore had tuned up their vocal cords and begun their weekly dispute. They usually argued about the Bible, like whether Joshua actually blew the walls of Jericho down with the wind from his born, or if old Joshua was bragging on himself a little too much---blowing his own horn in another way. Roy Leatherman was there every day, carrying on a running dispute with anyone who got up on the wrong side of the bed or didn't know enough to hurry past.
Ott was there every day too. He never said anything at all, never turned a hair to anything, except once in a while he whacked his stick down on the feed dock hard enough to knock little clouds of shorts and flour out of the cracks. When Ott whacked that oak dock with his' stick, it stopped everything for a few seconds, kind of like ducks froze in a pond, 'cause Ott carried about a four-foot cut of a two-inch hickory sappling. Sometimes Roy Leatherman and the rest of them got to disputing whether Ott was attacking blasphemy or shouting amen when he whacked the oak boards. I thought there might be other possibilities, like killing meal weevils, or heating Roy Leatherman, but no one ever argued those.
Aud and Jack were there every Thursday evening, the night Jim Owens's mobile movie truck came and set up bleachers and a screen and showed a movie through a hole in the back of the truck, and turned Thursday into Saturday for bobtail-truck loads of men and women and kids, not only from around Omaha, but from Lowry and Self and Cricket, even Ridgedale and Pinetop up in Missouri. Aud and Jack got there well before sundown, and they never let their shirt tails hit their backs between the time they climbed out of their '39 Reo log truck and settled down onto the whittled-up bench where Roy was already.
This morning, Roy had found a yellowed old newspaper in the bottom of an egg crate and read a story about a stock crash that made people jump out of windows to kill themselves, and that all started a depression. This evening, Roy was explaining the thing. He needed to.
"What's a stock crash?" Aud said, "I seen a train crash down by Bergraan once, but there wudn't any stock in it."
"Wudn't any people in it either to jump out of windows. It was a freight train," Jack added.
"Dang it, this never had nothing to do with no train crash," Roy said, as emphatically as he knew how. "It never had nothing to do with no cows. It was a stock market crash."
"Well, you don't have to get so huffy about it," Aud said back, "and you don't have to cuss. R.B.'s settin' over there."
Aud was referring to me. My mother named me Rubin Bartholomew, but my dad just called me R.B., and so does everyone but my mother.
"Besides," Aud went on, "I know what a stock market crash is. We had a big crash in' 19 when the Kaiser give up. The price of cattle and hogs, mules too, went to almost nothing. There was a man down on White River had some to sell, and he couldn't hardly get nothing for them."
"This hain't got nothing to do with cows and hogs," Roy snorted.
I watched Roy, waiting for him to go on and tell us what he was talking about. Maybe he was enjoying what Miz Holman at school called "dramatic suspense,'' or maybe he was just making up his mind, like the time between when John Wayne says he's not going to hit somebody and when he hits him. Ott's stick came down. Clouds of flour and mill nm ground into fine dust erupted and went drifting off on shafts of setting sun. I dang near choked on a peanut.
"When the owner of a big company thinks he might be sued because the thangs he sells don't amount to much, or to shinny around some of the taxes, he takes ail his money out of the company and sells shares in the company to a lot of different people," Roy went on. "For each share they buy, people get a piece of paper that says if the company don't go broke, they get a share of the profit when the company says there is one." Then he paused again, to let this new stuff sink in, or maybe to haw the team around a comer and reset the plow, before be went on. But he'd waited too long, and Aud had had time to think.
"Sounds like share croppin' to me, where the owner cain't lose and the cropper cain't win," he said.
"Sounds to me like taking a I.O.U. from a stranger," Jack said, "in a floatin' poker game to boot." "This here is Big Business," Roy almost hollered. He punctuated both b's by pounding his fist on a dolly load of chicken feed Jess Burlison was rollin' in front of him. "Hit's what makes the whole country nm. Hit's what makes America great enough to beat Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini. Hit's why Dewey is the right man for the .... "
Ott's stick come down with a crack like Old Scratch's whip, right on a weevil about a hand from Roy's foot. It was hard enough to bounce Roy out of soundin' like Oral Wurstenburger when he run for the U.S. Congress. With the end of his stick, Ott pushed the remains of the bug into a knothole where feed dust had settled.
"I thought you was goin' to tell us what a depression is," Jack said, "instead of exhortin'." He made it sound like eggs whortin'.
"Dang it. That's what I was doin' when Ott tried to deefen me. Somebody ought to do something about that old man," Roy said. With his stick raised, Ott was peerin' around for another bug, I guess. Anyhow, his eyes ranged from the edge of the feed dock to about mid-knee on Roy. Roy wasn't flustered much. He went on.
"After a while, all the companies in the country have sold out to shareholders, and the holders are ail holdin' fistfuls of share papers and buyin'em and sellin'em like baseball cards. This keeps all the property in the country bein' sold all the time and all the money in the country from settlin' down in a few spots so everybody can get some of it."
Leonard Gailagher had come out of Burlison's and stopped to open a nickel bag of Cheezits. "How come none of it ever got down here?" he asked, dead serious. Roy ignored him.
Everything would'ye been fine, except one day they ail wanted to sell their papers at the same time. Nobody was buying. They ail lowered their price, but it didn't do no good. Still no buyers. They lowered more. No buyers. In just a little while, ail the property in the country was completely worthless, and there wasn't no money circulatin'."
"When did you say this happened?" Aud asked. He sounded doubtful.
Roy reached to his rear overalls pocket and pulled out the old yellow paper. He opened it up so Aud and Jack could see the front. I could see ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT in big black letters across the top, and under that in even bigger letters, PANIC STRIKES WALL STREET.
Under that, in smaller letters, it said, Dozens Leap to Their Deaths. Roy pointed to the date on the paper, October 29, 1949.
With the end of his stick, Ott pushed up the top edge of the paper where it had been crumpled against the side of the egg crate. In the wrinkles I could see *Twentieth Anniversary Edition*. Ott stobbed his stick down hard and leaned his chin on top of it. He kind of shook, like he was laugliing hard inside, but there was only the faintest change at the comers of his eyes and his mouth.
The horn on Jim Owens' movie truck went OOOHGAH. I got up to put my bottle in the stacked cases by Burlison's door. Aud and Jack got up and headed for the seats their wives and kids had saved for them in the bleachers.
"Well I'll be dogged," Aud said. "Did you know we'd had a depression?"
"Nossir, I never," Jack answered, "and I don't know that it'd a made much difference .... "
The rest of Jack's answer was lost in my hurry to get to the top bleacher. The cartoon came on almost as soon as the klaxon stopped echoing off the oak trees and ridges beyond the screen.
All the money wasn't gone. I still had twenty cents, enough to see the movie and to buy another bottle of pop and a bag of popcorn.
April 18, 1994
I've heard that the next issue of OzarksWatch is about the Great Depression in the Ozarks and that you're the editor. Well, I was there, and I can tell you exactly how it was.
The flour and shorts and mill-run dust Ott Loard knocked out of the loading dock at Burlison's store in Omaha, Arkansas has drifted off, did so long ago So have the Otts and Auds and Jacks and Roys. So have the times when many-maybe most-Ozarkers were independent enough they could afford to be ignorant of the Great Depression and a lot of other greats and not so greats.
Too bad. We Ozarkers are now just about as helpless and silly as most other Americans. And judging from the mess we're making of all the White River country, we've developed the same libido for the utterly ugly.
R. B. Mullinix
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