Excerpt from Cool Nation

In keeping with what I post on Fridays, below I’ve listed the second excerpt from Cool Nation. Last week I posted the entire first chapter. This is the opening to the second chapter…


My mother hailed from Kansas City gentry, if making money and succumbing to its worship qualifies as such, as indeed in Kansas City, and most of the world for that matter, it often does. Her father, Walter Mueller, made his money in the bakery business�a great deal of money. I don�t mean a corner bakery with an old man in a white hat behind the counter, but a massive factory that churned out loaves and buns and rolls by the thousands. He also was involved in the oil refineries in Wichita. He also had his investments, his properties, his stocks and bonds.
My mother often said they never even felt The Depression, living as they did in the Roanoke District. Thomas Hart Benton, drinking bourbon and giving the conformists hell, lived in the neighborhood. So did two former mayors. So in a more general way did Tom Pendergast, who had already given Harry Truman his first judgeship, who would soon move to the Country Club District, and after that to prison for income tax evasion, when finally he had to relinquish his role as City Boss.
Despite their wealth my grandmother always insisted on dressing my mother in ill-fitting, homemade clothes, less a reflection of parsimoniousness than of quiet lunacy. Later it would become raging lunacy: loud, shrill, unnerving. My grandfather out of love or loyalty never had her committed, but cared for her in their Roanoke home until in 1954 he died of a heart attack in the bathroom. By then my parents had been married twelve years, and my father often dropped by his in-laws� house to check on the old couple. Grandfather had been dead for two hours that night when Dad arrived. Grandmother met him in the front hall and Dad asked her where Grandfather was. Wringing her hands and pacing, she said, �Oh he�s back there with that woman again, Floyd. He�s back there with that woman. Go on. You�ll see.�
Dad found him on the bathroom floor, blood on the old man�s forehead from where he�d cut it falling, his flesh already cold. My father wept then, for he had loved my grandfather in a way he could never love his own father. Grandfather Mueller had been a gentle and generous man, who had not only given my father sound advice and warm companionship over the years, but also gave Dad, a poor kid from the Ozarks, the money with which to start his own business. My father had never ceased to revere him.
It was from that old man that my mother got her gentleness, her occasional silences, her tendency toward melancholy, and, in an adverse way, her indifference to money. Her ability to lecture me on the need to always visualize the positive, to understand that this reality is an illusion, and to realize that the world is on the verge of a New Age of peace�this she got from herself. Her mother�s madness she never inherited, although two of my brothers would not be so blessed.
Mom bore seven children (one a stillbirth), alternately loved and despised my father, found her own career at a time when women normally didn�t, loved us, lost us, regained us, endured two suicides and the passing on of the madness she�d escaped, endured the many shades of hell we put her through when the explosion of my generation�s decadence rocked a nation, and through it all maintained that we were put here for a higher good, that our lives were of our own choosing, and that no matter what happened to us we must never give up or feel sorry for ourselves, or lose the vision of a planet at peace, a planet united. All this hailing initially from the Roanoke District in Kansas City, believe it or not.
Mom�s people were Germans, and came here from the area of Cologne late in the nineteenth century. They prospered as merchants, were respectably oblivious to the arts, and generally did well in the Kansas City tradition until as I�ve said my grandfather did very well indeed. Their name was Mueller on her father�s side, Mayer on her mother�s. The Mayors supposedly were descended of Jews, something that horrified my maternal uncles but that always amused us. It also made made my sisters, my brother, and me proud. But don�t tell anyone in Kansas City: I might not be admitted to the better clubs.

My father�s father was a tough old bastard who when young had been among the toughest boys in the southern Missouri town of Ash Grove. You were reminded of this every time you looked at his hands, and counted not ten fingers but nine. He�d lost one finger in an Ozark brawl, bitten off by another boy when both were eighteen, drunk one night on white whiskey. My grandfather, it is said, went on to win the fight, kicking the other boy repeatedly in the guts until he had ruptured certain of his organs. That�s when the spectators in the saloon stopped it, just before they judged that death would descend. Those were brawls among Ozark toughs. That was my father�s side of the family.
Initially they came from landed gentry in colonial Virginia, where a plantation in King William County to this day bears our name. Before that they likely hailed from some hardscrabble village in Scotland.
In Virginia they made the curious mistake of fighting for the English, and after the Revolution found it unhealthy to dwell among the victors. They followed Daniel Boone�s Wilderness Highway into Tennessee, and then Kentucky, staying there until 1825, when my great-great-grandfather, Doc Steven McKenna, migrated to southern Missouri, and at a place called Leeper�s Prairie established a farm. His wife Sarah went with him.
Together they farmed four-hundred acres with relative success, but by 1850 Doc grew bored, went to Kansas City, and left out on the Oregon Trail for California, having heard, as everyone had by then, of the gold strike at Sutter�s Mill. Apparently he did well, because in 1852 he returned by clipper ship to New Orleans, where according to legend he prevented a slave family from being broken up on the block by buying them whole. That family came with him on a steamboat north to Missouri, and to his farm, which then prospered almost immeasurably. He didn�t live long to enjoy it though, having died in an ambushed stagecoach in April of 1861 on the Brazos River in Texas. He had been bound to California once more, to try and find two sons who had gone to the gold fields and not returned. The stage supposedly was ambushed by Kiowas, but my father always believed it was just renegade bandits. The occupants were all scalped just the same.
That same month the Civil War started, and my great-great-grandmother, Sarah McKenna, was left to run the farm with one small boy, three daughters, and the women slaves. Her three remaining sons of military age had joined up�two with the North, one with the South. The men slaves had joined up too, pretty much leaving the women to fend for themselves. Those women ran the farm well enough, but they couldn�t adequately protect it, and over the course of the next four years the Yankees and Rebels alternately robbed them of all their livestock, most of their food, and the bulk of their tools. By 1865 all they were left with was an old mare to do the plowing, and the only reason it wasn�t stolen is because Sarah shaved its hide and slathered the bald spots with grease, giving it the appearance of saddle sores.
It is said that near war�s end a detachment of Yankee cavalry rode up to the farm one day, seeking conscripts. Their leader, an obese, redheaded lieutenant, asked Grandma McKenna if any men lived on the farm. She told him none did, that all of her men were at the war, that two of them were already dead, and anyway that none of her men would ever evade duty. The lieutenant and his men searched the farm anyway, and it was as he was bending down to look under the porch that she decided she couldn�t take it anymore: the years of privation, the slaughter, the sacrifice, and now this Yankee insult of her family�s honor. She grabbed a shovel and clobbered him, knocking him on his face and leaving a welt on his ass. The detachment rode back out, and left Sarah, her daughters, and her broken-down mare, alone.
Sarah died ten years later, much reduced and neglected, buried by the former slaves who had stayed on at the farm to work, reluctant to leave and try their luck in the inhospitable domain of southern Missouri. After she died though, they had to.
Succeeding generations lost what was left of the farm, and its wealth, until finally my father�s father, born Arthur Lee in 1890, was raised as a poor white among other poor whites: semiliterate, given to easy violence, working always with his hands. For years that seemed to be the curse of our family, for years it seemed to be my curse: forever having to earn my living with my hands. But like so many perceived curses this one also had its blessings.
Grandpa, with his nine fingers, went to work in the lead and zinc mines that flourished in southwest Missouri, and northeast Oklahoma, at the beginning of World War I. The mines flourished because Europeans needed lead for their bullets to kill each other with, and they needed it in copious amounts. Those mines supplied it to both sides�at least until we got into the war. The town that was home to most of those mines was Picher, Oklahoma, a much abused little place hard up against the Kansas line, and just west of Missouri.
When the mines opened Picher had started out as a collection of tents, then went on to become a collection of shacks, then a coarse assemblage of frame houses and cheap saloons. Apart from its mines, its main claim to notoriety in those days was its murder rate, which peaked in the 1920s at about 100 a year�this in a town of 11,000. Miners who didn�t die in barfights could look forward to dying in the mines, which, with their collapses and explosions and the spread of silicosis, took a considerable toll. But Grandpa stayed on, working at the Nancy Jane Mine, advancing from miner to hoist operator, and establishing himself as one of the more prominent hillbillies in that hardscrabble town on the Oklahoma prairie.
Of course he wasn�t pure hillbilly. He could read and write and even had a taste for music and fine clothes. Besides, he was more of the Missouri plains than of the Missouri mountains. But his culture was hillbilly, as was his heritage, as in a more detached sense is mine.

(I’ll post the remainder of this chapter next Friday.)

Leave a Reply