The Covered Bridge Chronicles – The Tragedy of Carver’s Mill


One of our photographic expeditions of covered bridges George determined that he wanted to visit a bridge named Carver’s Mill Covered Bridge, located approximately two hours from my house when traveling the speed limit and an hour and a quarter when George drove. He was keen on seeing this bridge because an arsonist—likely a teenager—destroyed it approximately 10 years previously but had been rebuilt a few years later. According to reports, George had heard the bridge was in all aspects identical to the original structure.

The amateur cartographer who had hand drawn the map to Carver’s Mill Covered Bridge gave little attention to details. The bridge lay in an isolated rural area on a county road. Very few landmarks, such as road numbers or other intersecting or parallel roads, or even towns appeared on the map, so we could not find its location. Instead, we pulled into what we believed to be the nearest town of some size, at least compared to many others we stopped at for gasoline or to take a restroom break. A road sign informed us that we were in actuality entering Carver’s Mill, so our conclusion naturally was the covered bridge was in the immediate vicinity. The town had a square in its center, and George rolled up into one of the angled parking spots around the courthouse and we sought the aid of a local to give us directions to the bridge.

A haggard woman I hypothesized had lived about 60 years sat on a bench, and she continuously dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. She possessed disheveled stringy, gray hair, her clothes were worn and dirty, an unpleasant odor reeked from her being, and every once in awhile she would hit herself squarely on the forehead with her balled up right hand while mumbling, “Why did he go? Why did he go?”

We also saw a group of people gathered on one side of the courthouse, some seated in chairs and others standing. Most of the ones standing wore uniforms of some sort, but we could not discern what type of uniforms they were.

“Looks like a wedding,” said George.

The old woman immediately looked at him and said, “Evil, that’s what he is. He shouldn’t be marrying her if he doesn’t love her, and he doesn’t!”

“Pardon me?” said George.

“She’ll find out soon enough. He don’t love her, don’t love her at all. He loves another…”

George and I made a quick departure from her and looked for assistance from other quarters, which we found maybe 30 feet away in a professional-looking woman, smartly dressed and coiffed and emitting a much more pleasant aroma.

“Could you give us some help?” I asked.

She replied pleasantly, “Certainly, if I can. How could I help you?”

“We’re looking for the Carver’s Mill covered bridge and this old map we’re using is not very good. We haven’t been able to find it.”

“Oh, you must’ve gotten hold of the one drawn by Morgan Delaney back in the 1940s. If you go to our library there’s a much better map there, but I can easily direct you. Which direction did you come from?”

George explained our route, which he mostly got correct.

“So you came in over there?” she pointed to the road that we had traveled. We nodded and she continued, “Then all you have to do is follow the same road out of the other side of the square,” and she pointed in the appropriate direction.

We introduced ourselves more formally and explained the purpose of our expedition. Her name was Janice, she was a lawyer who spent most of her days in the courthouse, and she was polite in her apparent interest, but it was not likely she cared, other than from the standpoint of being friendly.

“It’s a good place to photograph. There’s lot of different perspectives to take a picture from,” she replied. “It’s a pretty bridge.”

Before we returned to the vehicle I said, “Somebody having a wedding over there?”

“Of course you wouldn’t know about that, you’re not from around here,” Janice replied. “I don’t suppose you’ve even heard about the wedding.”

“And what about that old woman sitting on the bench?” interrupted George.

“Her? She’s not an old woman, believe it or not. Barely 30, if that.”

“Must’ve had a rough life,” I said.

“Sure has. Now about the wedding—“

Just at that minute the fire siren sounded with its moaning wail. A couple of seconds later somebody pulled up to the parking area, screeching the car’s tires. As he exited the car he yelled, “The bridge is on fire! The bridge is on fire! Come on everybody, the bridge is on fire!”

The woman who was about 30 years old but looked twice that age lifted her head and began bawling vehemently, yammering something unintelligible.

The wedding broke up and men and women ran past us. Then we saw that their uniforms were those of fire fighters. Most of them ran to the fire station, which was only a couple hundred feet from where we stood.

“The bridge?” said George? “The bridge is on fire? Again?”

“Hold on!” said Janice. “You don’t need to go there—“

We did not hear anything else she said, for we were rolling in a few seconds. A fire truck and a couple of other vehicles with flashing lights forced us to pull over to the side, delaying our departure, and it quickly drove out into the countryside. In spite of George’s lead foot, we lost the fire engine.

When we arrived at the covered bridge no one was there—no people, no fire trucks, no police, nothing, just the bridge, and it was not on fire.

“Do you suppose there another covered bridge around here?” I asked.

“Not that I’ve heard about,” answered George.

“What other kind of bridge could’ve burned?”

“They came this way. I’m going to drive farther. We’ll have to come to them eventually.”

No other bridge of substantial size appeared before us, nor did we find any on fire. George drove for a few miles, and then bewildered we headed back to town.

The young woman who looked old had vanished and there was no indication that a wedding had been in progress when interrupted by a fire alarm. The courthouse lawn looked completely undisturbed. There were no chairs, no arch, and no trampled grass.

Janice emerged from the courthouse and walked to us.

“You didn’t find anything, did you?” she asked.

“No,” said George. “How’d you know that?”

She sat on a bench and asked, “You have time for a story?”

We nodded and sat down as well on an adjacent bench to listen.

“It was ten years ago—ten years today, in fact—that the woman you saw earlier experienced one of the worst tragedies in the town’s history. Her name is Lauren Ralston, and as I told you earlier, she is only 30 years old at the most. She was either 19 or 20 when it happened.

“This very day ten years ago Lauren was getting married to her high school sweetheart, a young man named Eric Feeley right over there on the courthouse lawn,” she pointed to where we had witnessed the wedding earlier. “Lauren was quite immature and possessive of Eric. She didn’t want him going anywhere or doing anything without her. He was a fire fighter, which was something she didn’t like because it took him away at times.

“Lauren was not prepared for marriage in any way. She frequently accused Eric of being unfaithful and demanding that he make a choice between her and being a fire fighter. Eric tried to downplay it, but everyone knew it bothered him because her possessiveness was trying to take him away from something important to him. She felt jealous of fire fighting, plain and simple. There was never any other girl Eric was interested in, but Lauren’s jealousy gave him no end of grief.

“She finally talked him into getting married, and like I said, today is the anniversary of their intended wedding. They were right in the middle of the ceremony when the fire alarm went off, Bill Peters came rushing over to the courthouse in his car and yelled at everyone that the bridge was on fire.”

George and I looked at each other quizzically.

“Just hang on,” said Janice. “Hear the rest of the story.

“All the fire fighters made an instant decision—they were going to save the bridge, which is our most notable landmark. People come from many states just to take pictures of it. We usually have fireworks in the little park in the field across the road from the bridge on the Fourth of July and town picnics on Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s always been like our most sacred place for the town.

“Standing up there, ready to get married, Eric had a decision to make. He looked at Lauren and said, ‘I’ll be back shortly and we’ll finish.’ He never came back alive, though. While fighting the fire the floor of the bridge gave way and Eric plunged 70 feet down into the shallow water. The fall probably killed him outright, but if not, a big portion of that end of the bridge landed on top of him.

“Lauren was devastated and has lost her mind. You see what she looks like today, and just ten years ago she was a beautiful young girl.”

“I thought she was 60 years old,” I said.

“She looks that old,” she said, “that’s for sure. No one ever sees her except for this one day every year, when she comes and sits on a bench while the wedding’s going on behind her. She cries about Eric and is still mad at him for choosing fighting the fire over marrying her.”

“You mean someone schedules a wedding every year on this day?” said George. “Do you have a re-enactment? Isn’t that kind of cruel for Lauren?”

“Uh, George, I don’t believe what we saw were real people,” I said.

“Shadows,” said Janice. “Just shadows of what happened ten years ago. The first couple of years everybody was kind of frightened and upset when they saw them. Now, we just let them get on with their business. They don’t bother us, we don’t bother them. Some people say they’re nothing more than concoctions from Lauren’s mind, but somehow we can see them. I personally have never believed in ghosts, and I don’t really have any other explanation for them, so I just call them shadows. We think they’ll go away when Lauren dies. Until then we see them once a year.”

“What do you think?” asked George on our trip home.

“I think it’s something I can’t explain,” I replied. “Strange, just strange. Shadows, she said. I guess I’ll go with that, too. We thought we saw something, but they were just shadows, our eyes playing tricks on us.”

Not a Leg to Stand On


Every day Jordan Carton covered the one-and-one-half miles to work on foot—literally one foot.

From the age of 19 until he was 36 Jordan worked in a heavy-equipment manufacturing business that paid well and provided wonderful security. However, an industrial accident caused by a fellow worker not paying attention to a warning light on an electronic console resulted in Jordan losing his leg from the hip down.

He was completely alone in the world, an only child whose parents had died within a year of each other nearly a dozen years prior to the accident. Jordan had never married and had no known relatives, although some must have existed somewhere. The accident cost him his job, and even though there was a financial settlement, it was not nearly enough to provide for him for the remainder of his life.

No public transportation existed in his town, and Jordan was too embarrassed, too angry, or too proud to ask the only other hourly employee for a ride each day. So he walked each morning to work and returned home each afternoon in the same manner.

Most people would fall into self-pity, and he did too. He seldom talked to anyone, confined himself to his apartment, and watched television or worked on wood crafts in his off hours. His diet consisted of frozen foods. The other employee with whom he worked later said that the only time Jordan talked was in brief exchanges when he needed to know some information about the job he was working on at the time. He never went out with anyone to a bar or to a movie because he associated with no one.

Jordan had been fitted for a prosthetic leg, but it rubbed him and made him quite uncomfortable, so after a month of wearing it, he pitched it in the dumpster. Instead, he hobbled on one crutch everywhere his one leg would take him.

One night a fire broke out in his apartment building, which consisted of four units. He had a ground floor apartment. To his left lived an elderly couple who were each nearly completely deaf; one walked with a cane, while the other one moved about in a wheelchair. Jordan broke into their dwelling and herded them outdoors to safety.

In the unit above lived a woman with her elderly mother and their three cats. Upon hearing the fire alarm each became hysterical and neither had the presence of mind to open the door and move to safety. Thanks to Jordan they survived when he once again broke into their place and shepherded them outdoors.

In the other upstairs apartment dwelt a family of five—two parents and three children under the age of five. Their apartment was the one where the fire originated, and they appeared trapped inside. Jordan again managed to break open the door. The husband grabbed his youngsters and whisked them to the yard, but the wife lay unconscious on the floor.

When the firefighters arrived they found the wife in the hall and took her outside and worked on her. She survived, although smoke inhalation forced her to the hospital for two days.

However, flames engulfed the complex by this time and Jordan was nowhere to be found. Later his body was discovered still in his family’s apartment. His crutch had melted, and the medical examiner speculated that, unable to move, he had attempted to escape the smoke and fire by going to a window, breaking it out, and breathe fresh air while waiting for someone to rescue him.

Jordan Carton lay on his stomach covering a book he had found on a shelf. Officials could offer no explanation for the book other than speculation that he had been delirious before the end. The title was A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, and it was turned to the final page.

Spring Mill, a Special Place


Some memories endure to the end of a person’s life. They might be pleasant or disturbing, and their images could possess life-shaping power.

Driving to Spring Mill State Park in Lawrence County, Indiana, revives indelible half-century memories for me. Mom and Dad nearly always packed up the car with food and their four children on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day during my youth to go to this place. The drive seemed agonizingly long, although it was right at an hour from our home on Maple Street in Sellersburg.

Once we arrived, though, the park did its magic work of forging memories.

There is something about the area which I did not know or understand at the time, but of which I am now aware, and the explanation for its whispering to me of “Welcome home” is simple. Although I knew my dad was born nearby, I did not know or did not understand the extent of the Burton family, which had arrived in Lawrence County in 1826 and filled Lawrence and Orange counties with 1700 Burton family members by the mid-1800s. I know this seems remarkable, almost unbelievable, but the records exist to attest to the fact. Apparently there was a Burton around every corner, some of them well-liked and respected, others not so.

Spring Mill used to have a huge lake for swimming, fishing, and boating, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s, and which was fed by a spring of cold water that emanated from a cave. We always parked and picnicked at the lake area, went swimming in the greenish water, which took forever for the body to get accustomed to because it was so cold, and then hiked to the pioneer village. The sand at the beach could be so hot a body could scarcely walk on it bare footed, while the water was so cold a person had to catch his or her breath when going under the first time.

Dad grilled hamburgers, and we usually had watermelon except on Memorial Day. I do not remember any other food we may have had; hamburgers and watermelon could well have filled the entire menu, but I can still taste them in my memory. A stream runs through the village, along with ample picnic areas, and people often chilled their melons in the creek while cooking their food. My family never did this then because we always had our picnics at the lake area, but I always marveled at it.

The pioneer village was a fascinating place to a child. I could walk through the old buildings and could picture what life might have been like in the 1800s. The musty smell of the structures, even when I visit today, floods me with those memories.

My favorite part of the village was a small souvenir stand. My parents probably could not afford it, but they always let my younger brother and I purchase something from there, usually a rubber tomahawk or knife, some stones, fake money, a pinwheel, a bird call, or some other inexpensive trinket. Sadly, that souvenir stand has been closed for a number of years, but I still look longingly at the structure whenever I visit.

The stream through the village is fertile ground for the imagination. After heavy rain it can be running so rapidly and so high that it is not safe to get into, but during a visit in the summer months children can usually be found playing in it, and its cold nature turning feet blue. I recall one time when the stream was up and flowing swiftly that a couple of children were on inflatable rafts, careening down the stream, barely able to float underneath two bridges which connect the parking lot to the main picnic area.

In the heart of the village stands a water powered gristmill, fed from the same cave that fed the lake. This is an amazing stone structure which, according to a park employee, took 100 men a year to build. There are three stories to the building, and the mill still grinds corn hourly. It is not difficult to stand mesmerized while the mechanism is in operation. Attached to the gristmill is a water powered saw, which I never remember operating in my youth, but it operates during the summer months now. Each of these things is amazing in its design.

The second and third floors are like a museum, filled with items from pioneer days. The park used to have parts of it set off to appear like old businesses. For years there was a spot on one of the floors that had a sign on it that read “Burton Blacksmith.”

Hiking through the vast woods at Spring Mill was full of adventures. There are marked trails throughout, and a person could spend a couple of days of days walking the park in its entirety. In one particular section are huge, ancient trees. Like the rest of the county the park also contains numerous caves which can be reached via the trails. Up hills and down the trails wind, frequently taking the breath away from adults, but children are usually found running them.

Autumn in southern Indiana equates to beautiful foliage, and the park overflows with visitors. Crisp air, breathtaking colors in the trees, family gatherings, and demonstrations of pioneer days in the village make for a wonderful afternoon here.

There is a Burton family cemetery about four miles from Spring Mill, and that is where I intend on being buried. I think I should like it if, before my remains are taken there to rest, my family would drive me one last time around the park in the hearse. I know it will only be my body and I will not really be there with them, but in honor of the memories this special place put in my heart, I would like that very much.

There is a song that makes me think of Spring Mill every time I hear it and would be appropriate to play in the automobile during my final procession around the park. This was the lead song for the movie Gods and Generals and was written by Mary Fahl, Byron Isaacs, and Glenn Patscha.

Going Home

They say there’s a place
where dreams have all gone
They never said where
but I think I know
It’s miles through the night
just over the dawn
on the road that will take me home

I know in my bones
I’ve been here before
The ground feels the same
though the land’s been torn
I’ve a long way to go
The stars tell me so
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And I’ll know what I’ve lost
and all that I’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

And when I pass by
don’t lead me astray
Don’t try to stop me
Don’t stand in my way
I’m bound for the hills
where cool waters flow
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And we’ll know what we’ve lost
and all that we’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

I’m going home
I’m going home
I’m going home

The Covered Bridge Chronicles – Stump Bottom Community Church’s Best Day


One Saturday morning George and I departed from my driveway with unrivaled expectation in our search for quality covered bridges. One existed within a half day’s drive that could not be matched for size in the entire state, with the bridge spanning a river at a distance of more than 400 feet. Most of the covered bridges we tracked down and photographed had lengths somewhere in the 100 to 150 feet range.

The town closest to this bridge was quite small, and we estimated the population to be somewhere near 500. As we approached the town we viewed what appeared to be the remains of another town, long vanished, with only some foundation stones or concrete slabs remaining. The town itself, called Stump Bottom, perched on a hill, high above the river. The old town rested in a flood plain, with evidence that recent floods had inundated many places.

A recent coat of red paint graced the gargantuan bridge, which was in immaculate condition, in spite of the fact that it had been bypassed and a new two-lane concrete structure had taken its place at some point. People were in the bridge when we arrived, and it appeared as if some event was going to transpire, which piqued our curiosity.

George parked the car per our custom, and we sought some of the local plebeians in order to strike up a conversation and acquire some teaching concerning the location’s unique lore. A woman exited from the bridge, apparently giving orders to drones inside.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” interjected George as she approached us. “We’re curious. What’s going on in there?”

The woman wore her hair up on her head, but strands hung down all around her, giving her an unkempt appearance. She was extremely busy, either by the nature of her work or because she wanted to appear busy.

“Yes, yes?” she answered impatiently. “What do you want?”

“We want to find out what’s happening inside the bridge,” said George.

“Oh, yes, the bridge. You’re not from around here, are you? No of course not, because you’d know what’s going on. Since you asked, we’re preparing for our annual Flood Celebration later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go. There’s still so much to do.”

She sallied forth to a building across the street, giving orders to everyone she met along the way.

“Looks like Medusa’s in charge of this Flood Celebration,” I said. “I wonder what a Flood Celebration is?”

George shook his head, then replied, “Maybe they’re descendants of the Egyptians and worship the flood, like the Egyptians did with the Nile. You know, that flooding gave them all that fertile soil so they could produce an abundance of food.”

“I don’t really think that’s it,” I said chuckling.

An ancient man with a stubbly, white growth of whiskers, wearing a broad brimmed hat, and a blue-striped shirt with checked pants, sat on one of the large stones that comprised the approach to the bridge. He worked his gums as he looked around at the workers, but never said anything.

“If he can talk, I’ll bet that’s the one we want to talk to,” said George, and we ambled our way in his direction, having to stop twice to avoid collisions with people carrying armfuls of fold up chairs.

“Hello,” I said, hoping he heard me. When he turned clear eyes in my direction, I repeated with some volume, “Hello.”

“Howdy, young fella. Escoe Pheeters’s the name,” he replied. “Don’t worry, fellas, I can hear just fine. You don’t need to talk loud.”

After George inquired as to the nature of the Flood Celebration, Escoe Pheeters adopted the look of a schoolboy, and we knew it was a topic he would relish relating, so he obligingly commenced unraveling the tale of the Flood Celebration.

“The year was 1933. Back then the town was down there,” he pointed to the abandoned site we had passed through earlier. “Nobody lived up there at all,” he twisted his arm towards the top of the hill. “Every year we flooded down there. You see how little of a bank there is with the river? It could rain for half an hour and people’s yards would be underwater. Don’t know why everybody was so ignorant as to build the town down there.

“But I suppose when Stump Bottom was settled people built their dwellings right along the river out of necessity, close to a water source and all. But by 1933 people should’ve known better. It flooded every blessed year. People never seemed to learn I guess. They just kept repairing their homes after each year’s damage.”

At this moment Gorgon Hair dropped down in a whirlwind from the other side of the street and interrupted us and spoke to Pheeters. “Escoe, you remember what you’re supposed to say tonight, don’t you? Do you need me to give you a script?”

“Mercy, Wanda,” he upbraided her. “I’m 86 years old and I’ve said the same thing for the last 79 years. You think I’m going to forget it this year just because you’re in charge of the thing? You young people think us old-timers are just plain stupid. I’d made my speech nearly 35 years before you were even born. Run along, of course I know what I’m going to say.”

Chastised, the woman we now knew bore the appellation Wanda, scurried inside the covered bridge and found some different underlings to issue orders to.

“She’s a sweet girl, she really is,” said Pheeters with a twinkle in his eye. “I asked her grandmother to marry me but she refused. She’s taken too much on herself with this here festival, that’s all.

“Now, back to what I was telling you. People around here didn’t have no more sense than to keep living down along the river, even knowing that one day a big flood was going to break all their hearts and probably take a few lives. And that’s exactly what happened and why the whole town moved up the hill.

“Sunday morning, March 5, 1933, was when it all happened. Nearly everyone was in church—church then was called Stump Bottom Community Church, called Covered Bridge Community Church now. I was there with my ma and my pa, my five brothers and two sisters. I was the youngest, just six years old at the time. Hated going to church mostly, but liked it when they had picnics and such.

“The church had this preacher then by the name of Noah Hammonds, and he was the best hell, fire, and brimstone preacher ever walked the face of this earth, and that’s a fact. It had been raining for five straight days, coming down in buckets, so to speak, and people’s yards were already small ponds. The preacher was real agitated this day and was working up one of his best sermons ever. He weren’t fifteen minutes into it when Earl Babcock—he was in charge of the town’s water and was in town hall this day keeping an eye on things—he come barging in through the church doors and told everybody to run for their lives because a flash flood was heading our way.

“Panic set in naturally. People didn’t know where to go, and so a lot of them headed for the covered bridge. Don’t know why, they just did. I guess because the bridge had withstood everything nature could throw at it over the years. Many went inside, but others ran to their homes.

“Somebody looked out one end of the bridge and yelled, ‘There’s a wall of water coming down!’ Sure enough, it came through, plumb up to the bottom of the bridge. Everybody was crying and screaming and yelling they were going to die.

“Somehow I climbed up into a window to look at the water, and I slipped and fell out. My dad caught hold of my suspenders and held on for dear life. I was mostly in the water and fighting like anything to get back in, yelling and crying and screaming.

“The preacher, he got a bright idea right then. He ran over to the window and asked me if I’d like to be baptized, if I’d like to be guaranteed of going to Heaven because it looked like I was going to perish. I really couldn’t hear him, but I said yes, and he directed my dad to dip me down in the river, then pull me straight back out.

“The raging river continued at that height for over two hours and kept us all in doubt concerning life and death, and the preacher got all worked up and held a regular revival meeting. He told the people the story of Noah and the flood, and how only Noah and those with him in the Ark survived. He said it appeared that the bridge would likely give way at any moment, but he himself was confident, as Noah in the Old Testament was, that he had found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

“The preacher hammered away at the captive congregation, telling them they could have security too, if they would only get baptized and be assured of their eternal place. That day everyone in the bridge got baptized, even if they’d been before. People didn’t want to die, but they felt a peace if the bridge got washed away and them with it. There was an old fashioned gospel hootenanny after the water subsided and everyone knew they were going to live.”

George interrupted and a somewhat skeptical look flashed across his face. “That’s amazing. Obviously your dad pulled you back in, but how long did you have to stay out there, and how did the preacher safely baptize everyone?”

Pheeters looked him squarely in the eye. “Don’t you doubt me, young man. Everything I said is the truth. But to answer your questions, Dad couldn’t pull me in for over an hour. He was afraid my suspenders were going to break, so he didn’t put much pressure on them by pulling me. Eventually he got a grip on my pants and pulled me back in. Haven’t been in the water since. Never even gone swimming. Don’t even take baths, just wash myself up real nice.

“Now about him baptizing everybody, someone—I think it was Harvey Nightsong—had a strong rope in the back of his truck, which he had pulled into the bridge. They got it out and tied people on, one by one, and dunked them in the river. They had six men holding the rope so no one would fall in and perish, and of course they anchored the other end to the truck bumper. It was the best day that Stump Bottom Community Church has ever experienced. Most of the people who got religion that day have stuck it out, too. Most of the people are now dead, but they faithfully went to church every Sunday after that day.”

“So the town—?” I said.

“Washed clean away. All that went to their houses died,” Pheeters replied. “Twenty-seven souls lost their lives that day, but not a one who went to the bridge.

“And that’s why we’ve held what we call the Flood Celebration every year. We’re remembering those who died, but also remembering the work this bridge did in saving our lives. Two iron bridges washed completely away a little down the river, and a third was so damaged they had to tear it down and build a new one. But these covered bridges were built to last.”

George and I each looked into the bridge. It was long and dark, but men were stringing lights inside. Chairs were being set up and what was obviously a church-like service was going to transpire later.

“The town moved up the hill where it should’ve been all along,” said Pheeters. “Pity people couldn’t see it sooner and it took a disaster to open everyone’s eyes. You guys staying around for the memorial service?”

George and I looked at each and shrugged our shoulders.

“Sure,” I said.

“Yep,” said Pheeters. “This bridge has served us mighty well. Probably isn’t a boy around here who hasn’t had his girlfriend in a car parked in this bridge. State bypassed it about 10 years ago. We protested but it weren’t any use. We keep it up to remember how it saved us.”

The service was simple but effective. Wanda flitted about the entire time and could not have heard five words. Escoe Pheeters repeated his lines for the 79th straight year and never missed a syllable. There were few dry eyes in the crowd. George and I determined we would return to this place next year.

Beware of Jack

finishline casino

Hattie was a woman who, once engaged in an activity, allowed her passions to rule over her in its pursuit, heedless of advice or warnings from others, including close friends and relatives. With a single-mindedness that could not be deterred even in the face of impending destruction, she pressed on, convinced that the activity would bring her ultimate satisfaction. Such determination is admirable for level-headed people who desire to obtain a goal, as long as it is not unreasonable and it bears favorable promise of gain or advancement, but in the end it led to poor Hattie’s ruin.

For many years her husband Frank held her in check. His iron hand and equally inflexible will governed Hattie’s passions mercilessly. Frank had one area in particular in which he insisted on compliance from his wife, and that was in the area of gambling. He ranted about having witnessed friends and acquaintances from work lose family and homes over gambling losses, and he swore it would never happen to him.

Unfortunately Frank passed away early, leaving Hattie to heed the Sirens Call of betting, and it did not take long for her to plunge in head over heels. She loved two places in particular—the racetrack and the casino, and she generously fed their never-sated appetite to consume others’ money.

Hattie possessed another trait which accounted for much of her troubles. She was extremely superstitious and relied heavily upon the horoscope to direct her to her destiny, religiously reading each day’s words of guidance from her horoscope book. In addition she also believed in lucky numbers and visited fortunetellers.

For months after Frank’s death Hattie made her presence felt either at the local casino or at the horse track, becoming acquainted on a first-name basis with those who worked there. Her losses mounted, and she quickly began losing money she could neither afford nor pay back. As her situation grew desperate, she determined to visit her favorite psychic to get the best number for a particular upcoming meet at the track, along with any other advice she could get.

“I need your help really bad,” said Hattie to Madame Ardanna. “I haven’t been lucky lately and I need you to give me the best advice you’ve ever given because I need money soon.”

“Oh, my poor Hattie,” said the seer, “have you not been taking my advice? Or perhaps you have been visiting someone else, someone not quite as gifted as I am?”

“Well, to be honest, my horoscope’s been all out of whack, and I have seen two, no three, other psychics. They have not been able to see nearly as well as you.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said Madame Ardanna. “But you know where to come when you really need good advice, do you not?”

During the visit the psychic presented her with the number seven to use as a guide in her upcoming endeavor.

“I see this is something big for you,” she said. “Something very, very big and important. Do not allow yourself to be sidetracked by any other advice. Seven is your prime number for this crucial time.”

Hattie thanked her profusely, paid her fee along with a generous tip, and was about ready to leave when Madame Ardanna grabbed her arm. “One more thing,” she said. “One important piece of advice, just a phrase really, and I’m trusting you will know what it means when the time comes. Beware of Jack. That’s all—Beware of Jack.”

Hattie now knew her troubles were about at an end. She was going to the track in two more days, and she had decided beforehand that she was only going to bet the number of the horse Madame Ardanna had advised, unlike all the other times when she bet every horse in each race and hoped a long shot would win. However, she told herself that she was going to be smart this time and only bet horse number seven in a race where that particular horse had odds of at least five to one. She knew that meant there would be some races where she would not bet at all, but she persuaded herself that she could be disciplined enough to abstain from betting in those races.

She still pondered the phrase “Beware of Jack,” not as yet understanding its significance. She had known a few men named Jack in her lifetime, but none were of any consequence, and she currently had no contact with any man of that name. What could it mean? Could Jack be the name of a man who would try to get her sidetracked at the races? She simply did not know but was confident she would recognize and avoid him when the proper time came.

The early races proved profitable for Hattie. Two of the first three contained a number seven horse with odds she would use, and they paid nicely for her. Still, she had great debt—over $40,000—and it was coming due soon. She also bet and won in the fifth and sixth races, and her earnings were now in the low thousands.

“If there’s a seven with big odds later, I can cash in and pay everything I owe,” she thought. However, in races seven through nine, no horse number seven had agreeable odds, and she grew sullen.

The tenth and last race approached and she studied the racing program. Suddenly she became overwhelmed with joy and started clapping her hands.

“Tenth race, horse number seven, odds are twenty-five to one! I’m saved! I’m saved!”

Her exuberance left her just as suddenly though as she read the names of the horse and jockey.

“Jack O’Lantern, ridden by Jack Kinney. Beware of Jack! Beware of Jack!”

Convinced that this horse and jockey were plotting to overthrow her good fortune, Hattie determined not to bet horse number seven, but to go with a different one of better but still long odds, a horse wearing number three but named Lucky Seven. She bet all of her winnings.

The race was a long one of a mile, and Lucky Seven got out of the gate well and was near the head of the pack at the halfway point. Trailing the field was Jack O’Lantern. Hattie clapped nervously but said little.

During the next quarter mile Lucky Seven overtook the leader and built a three-length lead, while Jack O’Lantern was still at the back.

“I knew it! I knew it!” she exclaimed excitedly. “Today’s my lucky day. All my problems will be over. I can pay my gambling debts and start over.”

At this point something happened which made her uneasy, as Jack O’Lantern started weaving up through the pack.

“There’s not enough time for that horse,” she said and clapped for Lucky Seven, who was still securely in the lead.

As they rambled down the stretch Jack O’Lantern ran like the wind, passing horses as if they were standing still. With an eighth of a mile to go Lucky Seven led Jack O’Lantern, who had moved up to second, by four lengths. Then it became clear that Lucky Seven had run out of gas. The gap narrowed, but it still appeared as if Hattie’s horse was going to present her with a huge payday.

A photo finish determined that Jack O’Lantern edged out Lucky Seven by the narrowest of margins and she saw her winnings vaporize before her eyes.

Hattie never gave up her belief in the stars determining her fate, nor did she stop visiting her psychic. She faced some especially difficult financial times but also never stopped paying her required Gamblers Union Number One dues to the casino and the track.

Our Cat the Huntress

We have a potential cat problem at our house, and I find myself debating within whether or not to fix it. Generally speaking cats produce a positive atmosphere for the home, they have an uncanny sense of when someone is ailing and  attempt to comfort the sufferer, and properly fed, watered, stroked, and made master of the domain provide companionship, although I tend to believe that we provide them rather than they provide us.

We have a mother cat with a recent litter, so naturally she has taken care of them in a very commendable way, bringing them out of seclusion for the first time when they were ready to be acclimated to our human world. One particular thing at which she has excelled is she has attempted to train her children how to be good hunters, a task she accomplishes with ease.

Since these kittens have arrived, she has secured a balanced diet for them consisting of mice, birds, shrews, squirrels, and rabbits. She is never content to let her babies eat only amply-provided cat and kitten chow. No, she insists on supplementing their meals with fresh kills.

Yesterday evening I walked out the door to take the precious meow-boxes their evening meal. I walked around the corner, and squarely in our breezeway lay a fresh squirrel, still intact, though its head and face were rather mangled from the kill. I grabbed a spade and scooped it up into the garbage can.

I did not see Momma anytime the rest of the evening, even though I sat out under the stars with her brood immediately after dusk. I think she may have been upset with me because of her missing squirrel. Possibly she believed I ate it when she intended it for her young ones. Regardless, this morning I walked out the door, and what lay there on our steps, but a rabbit. The kittens apparently had it for an overnight snack, for not much of it remained.

I have concerns about this cat. She is the best hunter we have ever had, even better than our beloved Callie, who lived to the ripe old age of 17 and frequently left us gifts on the porch. This cat far outdoes Callie in capture. My concern is, “What is she going to bring home tomorrow?” I do not want a dog, but my fear is one will be sitting on our front porch one morning, dragged in by the cat and forced to become our pet.

A hawk lives in our neighborhood, and I believe he should exercise caution when circling the house.

I would not be at all surprised to find some appliances, like a washing machine or a dryer, left for us as a present one morning. Neither would it shock me to wake up and find a 1964 Studebaker sitting in our driveway. The parcel delivery people also should be aware when coming to our home, which they frequently do. I do not one to turn up missing.

Possibly I should consider going into the pest control business, specializing in rodents and birds. That cat might make me wealthy yet.

The Covered Bridge Chronicles – Bass Roulette

One weekend George and I decided to visit a county in which two covered bridges resided and which were somewhat remote, not only from each other but from nearly the rest of civilization. As usual he sat behind the wheel and I served as navigator, a position George woefully needed. He had obtained maps from the local library to the covered bridges still remaining in the state, but these maps had been drawn by hand as many as 50 years ago, and in no way were they drawn to scale. At some location on a map an inch may have represented a mile, while on the same map but in a different location that same measurement might represent five miles or possibly 500 feet. Fortunately I navigate well by landmarks—there were some on the maps—and numbers of roads. George’s navigational skills were not nearly as acute as my own, and occasionally we had small disagreements about which roads to take and where to turn, most of the time of which I was correct.

We traveled for a little over an hour and a half before we got within shouting distance of the first destination. George had driven there alone previously and he was somewhat bewildered by my crystal clear driving directions, for he revealed that he had come in a more circuitous way on his solo excursion. I, on the other hand, prefer main travel arteries for as long as possible. He confessed that he had taken considerably longer to get this close to the bridge.

Before arriving at this particular bridge, we had to pass through a small village of old houses along a river. Also at the river was an old dam, still structurally sound itself, but the things around it, like a walkway that extended nearly halfway across the spillway and 15 feet over the top portion of the dam, and a couple of buildings and some equipment no longer in use, were rusted and ancient. We had to take a sharp curve and go up a small, steep hill before we could park at the dam area.

Upon cresting the hill George pointed to a dilapidated building to our right. It was still in use, for there was an operating soft drink machine in front, cars parked in its gravel lot, and people were coming out a screen door. George laughed loudly and said, “Did you read the sign?”

I read it. “Big Don’s Bait and Pizza. I know it’s near lunch time, but I’ll pass on that.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not in the mood for a mealworm pizza?”

“I think I’ll just capture some grasshoppers or a couple of cicadas when we stop. Maybe I’ll catch a fish with my bare hands. That’ll tide me over until we get to a restaurant.”

Also on the other side of the hill was a long line of automobiles parked along the road as far as we could see, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around, while hundreds more were fishing in the river, both above and below the dam. Some adventurous fishers stood on the walkway that extended over the dam and cast into the water below the dam, 30 to 40 feet below the walkway.

“What’s going on?” said George. “I’ve been here before and at the most I’ve seen just three or four people.”

“Kind of looks like a fair or celebration or something,” I replied. “I only see a couple of vendors, though, selling food and drinks. No crafts or anything like that.”

George parked the car far down the road and we determined to ascertain the cause of the excitement. There were many people along the riverbank, a good portion of them fishing, but some milling around in a party-like atmosphere. George has an innate sense of finding the best person from which to garner information, and he headed towards the bank after eyeing three men in a small boat getting ready to come ashore. On our way there a small, malnourished dog attached itself to us, running around us excitedly and yapping.

“What’s going on around here?” George asked the front man in the boat, who was wearing a hunting vest over the top of a blue flannel shirt, a fluorescent orange cap, hip boots, and was placing a container on the ground, apparently full of fish.

“Hey, where’d you get that dog?” the man answered. “We got here a week ago and that mutt was wandering around, begging for food. We fed him a couple of times, against my advice, but Red—he’s the one wearing the red shirt—threw him some bread and lunch meat.” He pointed at a man in the rear of the boat wearing a red flannel shirt, so we made the assumption he must be Red. “We think Red thought the dog was his nephew Orrin. Thought we’d never get rid of him, but for some reason the dog ran away the next day and we haven’t seen it since. He was nothing but skin and bones, somebody had probably dumped it here at the river. We figure he’d been starved out and that’s why he hadn’t come back, because everybody else just chased him away.”

Red staggered from the rear of the boat and stumbled onto the bank, revealing a solid bed of beer cans in the boat’s bottom. His red eyes rolled around as he looked for something stable to secure himself to the earth. “Where’s my pole?” he asked, but he had left it hanging over the side of the boat.

“You been fishing all night?” I inquired of Blue, making the assumption that their names matched the color of their shirts.

“Yeah, well kind of,” he replied. “At least me and Pete been fishing. Red doesn’t do anything but drink beer, and the cheaper the beer the more he guzzles. Don’t believe he’s drawn a sober breath for a couple of decades, maybe more. He was a drunk before we graduated high school, plain drunk at our graduation, but the school didn’t say nothing—they was just glad to get him out of there.”

“Does Red ever catch anything?” inquired George.

Blue chuckled and threw the rest of equipment to shore. “He caught a fish once down at Kramer’s Lake—you ever been there?” We shook our heads negatively. “Well, Red was powerful drunk, and we’d only been out a couple of hours. But then he hauls in a huge catfish and can’t believe his eyes. He really weren’t fishing, he’d just cast out and laid his pole on the edge of the boat. That fish bit and Red didn’t even know what to do. We had to help him bring it in. He was so excited, he went on and on. Didn’t know how to take it off the hook, so we pretended like we took it off for him and put it back in the water. Naturally Red thinks he’s caught another one, so we helped him bring it in again. We kept that up for nearly an hour and told him at the end that he’d caught about 30 fish.”

“You telling the boys about me catching all those catfish?” Red accidentally ran into consciousness.

“That’s right, Red,” answered his friend. “Best catfishing we’ve ever done.”

“I was better than all you that night,” Red replied. “Better than all you ever been. Nobody’s caught that many fish at one time.” Then looking at us he said, “That your dog? There’s been a dog running around here that looks just like your dog. You got any beer in your car? We seem to be all out.”

George assured him we were fresh out of beer, so Red lay down on the muddy bank and fell asleep.

“Why are there so many people here?” I asked. “Some type of festival going on? Fishing contest?”

“Well, you might call it a fishing contest of sorts,” replied Blue. “I reckon that people are mostly here to go to the funeral.”

“Some local fisherman die?” asked George.

“No, not yet, but he’ll be dying either today or tomorrow.”

“Bad sick? Cancer?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that. Seems fit as a fiddle. Doctor says he’s in tip-top shape and could live another 25 or 30 years. But he’s going to die as sure as Red is asleep down there.”

George and I looked at each other with puzzlement. “I don’t understand,” said George. “How do you know he’s going to die? Can we see him? What’s his name?”

“Name’s Ed Harbin. He’s around here somewhere—there he is, over by that tallest oak over there, dressed real nice, getting ready to be planted. I’ll take you to him. He can explain better than I can. After all, it affects him the most.”

We followed Blue, and he introduced us to Ed Harbin, an honest-looking man of about 50 to 55 years, slightly graying hair, wearing what was undoubtedly his Sunday best. He was jovial despite his impending demise and gladly shook our hands. George told him of our curiosity concerning his situation and he wholeheartedly told us his story.

“A number of years back—I don’t remember how many—a man by the name of Virgil Pressman went fishing right below the dam over there with a couple of his buddies. He reeled in this huge bass that was all tore up around the mouth. They figured he must’ve been caught numerous times and that’s what caused the damage around its mouth, so they named it Old Snagglemouth. Virgil up and decides he’s not going to throw Old Snagglemouth back into the river, but throws him in his container and keeps him alive. He was planning on cleaning and cooking him that night for dinner.

“Wouldn’t you know it, though, Virgil ups and dies of a heart attack before he got home. His buddies came to the conclusion that it was in retribution for deciding to keep Old Snagglemouth, so they quick as they can take the fish back down to the river and put him back in.

“Since that time Old Snagglemouth has showed up at this spot for one week a year—the week of Virgil’s death. Every year somebody has caught him. The second year he was caught by a man named Bob Dudley, and Bob decides he’s going to keep him as well, but wouldn’t you know it, Bob dies right on the spot and the fish went free.

“People began putting two and two together and came to the conclusion that that fish is some type of devil fish, and a curse of death goes with it. Every year since Virgil caught Snagglemouth the person who has caught him has died within a year—some of them natural-like, other’s violently, like in a car wreck.

“So we began having a fishing contest for that one week and challenged people to participate. Something about the danger attracted people—kind of like playing Russian Roulette, so to speak. People wanted to fish for Snagglemouth, hoping they’d not be the one who caught him. As it happened, I caught him last year, and since that time I’ve been waiting for my death. It will be exactly a year in two days, so I’m looking at passing on either today or tomorrow. I’ve been praying it will be quick and painless.”

He paused long enough for me to interject, “OK, let me see if I’ve got this right. You caught a fish and you’re going to die, you believe, in the next two days because there’s some type of superstition connected with catching the fish?”

“No superstition in it,” said Ed. “It’s a fact. Everybody who’s caught Snagglemouth since Virgil has died within a year, most of them almost immediately. I’ve made it longer than anybody. I’ve had a wonderful year, doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never took the time.”

“Kind of like a bucket list?” asked George.

“Bucket list? What’s that?” said Ed. “Don’t know what a bucket list is. Simply done everything I’ve desired to do for years like visit the state capital, play in an all-night poker game, got married—“

“Got married?” I asked, smiling. “You never been married before now?”

“No, never took the time, too busy working. Up and asked Sally Leiter. Always had a crush on her but never let her know. She said yes, and we’ve had a great year. She knew it was going to be a short marriage, so I appreciated her saying yes. Wasn’t looking for love, only looking for someone to share my final days with.”

“So all this?” said George, pointing to the crowd.

“It’s about me, and the fishing contest. I don’t expect anybody will catch Snagglemouth until I die, but these people sure are having a good time. Started charging a hundred dollars apiece to enter the contest, and whoever catches Snagglemouth gets all the money so he can enjoy his remaining days on Earth. Last I heard we have over 250 people paid up this year, so the winner’s going to get at least twenty-five thousand dollars to spend however he likes.”

We stayed and talked to Ed for about 20 minutes longer, but he kept getting interrupted by people shaking his hand and wanting to wish him a fond farewell, so we went back to the car and proceeded to the covered bridge to take our shots.

After sundown we drove through the town again and there was no longer any crowd. Everyone had seemingly packed up and left. We stopped at the Bait and Pizza place to inquire where everyone had gone, and were greeted at the door by Blue, who had been profusely crying.

“What’s the matter?” George asked. “Did Ed die?”

“Yes,” replied Blue, “about two hours ago. They had a big fish dinner planned for him because fish is—er, was—his favorite food. Larry Martin caught a mess of catfish, cleaned them and gave them to his wife Sharon to cook up. She’s a mighty fine cook, but it didn’t work out too well tonight. After taking a couple of bites, Ed puts both hands around his throat and can’t speak. Appears like he got a fish bone lodged in his throat, along with some bread and other stuff he was eating at the time. Nobody could help him and he choked to death.”

“The curse continues,” said George.

“Never any doubt about that,” replied Blue. “Ed had a strange, peaceful look on his face right before he passed on.”

“That’s real sad,” I said. “He seemed like a nice man.”

“He was, he was. Salt of the earth. They don’t come any better than Ed.”

“So where is everybody?” asked George. “No one staying around for his funeral?”

“No, no one was planning to do that. They only wanted to see him these last couple of days and wish him well. But there’s no reason to stay around any longer, and that’s the main reason I’m upset.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Blue looked over to the riverbank where his boat remained.

“Red’s still sleeping in the mud,” he began, “but he’s been dealt a bad hand. He won’t be conscious for some time, possibly not until morning, but when he wakes up I’m going to have to tell him that he caught Old Snagglemouth. The old rascal bit on Red’s line that was hanging over the boat. Weren’t even any bait on it, live or artificial. We don’t allow him actually to fish, just goes around and puts a hook in the water so we don’t have to mess with it while he’s drinking. As soon as everybody heard about it they cut out. The contest ended when Red caught him. I’m hoping maybe he’ll die in his sleep tonight so he never finds out.”

George and I departed, saddened and confused. He sheepishly approached the subject of us entering the contest next year but let it drop when I refused to respond.

21st Century High School Athletic Training

It is early summer, hot and very humid, and high school will be in session in three weeks locally. When I recently met a high school student participating in summer conditioning in preparation for the approaching school year, I realized that conditioning has changed dramatically since my time in high school.

My oldest son and I went blueberry picking at a wonderful farm about half an hour away from where we live. This place has been in existence a little over three decades, and my family has picked blueberries there almost since its inception. It was there that I encountered the sports trainee and her unusual method of conditioning.

After finding the absolute best row of blueberry bushes, my son and I proceeded to fill our individual containers, starting at the beginning of the row. About 10 feet from us were two women, one obviously the mother and the other her teen-aged daughter. As frequently happens when picking blueberries, people talk, and the daughter was going at it hammer and tong.

“So then Kim gets all mad, hangs up the phone and they haven’t talked since,” were the first words I heard emanating from the daughter’s mouth.

“Mmm,” replies the mother in standard “I heard you speak but I’m not listening to you” parent speak.

“Boy, what a jerk Jason is,” continued the daughter. “Hasn’t called, nothing. And it’s all his fault. How could anyone be so selfish and thoughtless? I’ve never met anyone as selfish as he is.”

I thought, “OK, so Kim has been jilted by Jason and this girl—obviously Kim’s friend—has taken up the burden of condemning him in her most acerbic manner.”

“It’s not right when a boy trashes a girl’s reputation, Mom. I mean, he’s started spreading around stories that first of all, aren’t even true, and secondly, even if they were true, he shouldn’t be repeating them. They’re real bad, something that will kill a girl’s reputation in a minute.”

The daughter was now crying, and I had begun to take poor Kim’s side, wanting something painful to happen to Jason.

The mother grunted something unintelligible to acknowledge her presence, knowing that the daughter needed only a vapid response to continue her story.

With that encouragement the daughter indeed continued nonstop for the next 30 minutes. I lost interest somewhere in the harangue against Jason, and her voice was little more than white noise to me most of the time. However, at a certain point it became irritating. I rose to a standing position and looked in her direction, wondering if she was ever going to take a breath. One sentence caught my attention.

“Mom, do you think I should stop dating Jason? I mean, for all his negative points he is amazingly cute.”

I had to re-position my assumptions. So Jason was her boyfriend and not Kim’s? There was really no connection between the sentence about Kim earlier in the conversation and anything else she had said about this Jason character?

Her verbosity about Jason continued without as much as a one-second pause. I stood there in amazement as she talked, and talked, and talked. There is no way she could have more than a dozen blueberries in her container, I thought. Also I had begun to sympathize with Jason, and was tempted to ask the girl for his number so I could call him and tell him that his best move would be to drop any relationship he might have with her immediately. Then again, listening to her empty chatter and the mother’s nonchalance, there may not actually be a relationship there, but merely something the girl had conjured out of air.

She stood up and I saw that she was wearing clothing that an athlete might wear when conditioning, someone who might run cross country. Then the light came on and I understood everything more clearly. She was not out here to pick blueberries—she was actively engaged in conditioning for her sport. Most likely she was working on her breathing, a vital part of a runner’s success. Here she had talked for at least half an hour without a break (although I would wager that in school she could not stand in front of a class and give a three-minute speech because ‘I can’t think of anything to say’.) Her breaths, if she ever took any, were so slight that they did not interrupt her. I also conjectured that she was indeed making up everything she said on the spot to accommodate her exercise. This girl was intense in preparing for the upcoming season.

My son and I finished our task, speaking a sum of 15 words between us the hour we were there. The athlete was still in conditioning mode when we left.

It is truly amazing the novel ways in which coaches get their athletes to condition in this day. I would much rather have preferred this girl’s method to the one my basketball coach used, one which found us running three to five miles each day after school on hot and humid August and September afternoons.

Catfish Festival


Some things would be very troubling, if one took thought of them. One question that makes an occasional but fleeting passage through my mind is, “Why do I purposely waste portions of my life on things that are fruitless?”

My older brother George and I traveled together frequently beginning in the mid-1990s, and we have compiled a long list of places not to visit. Some showed great promise but were fool’s gold. The majority, however, were a self-evident waste of time. Still, they had a mysterious appeal that we could not resist.

A prime example is Taco Bender’s. Our sister lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where she is an oncologist. We spent a week with her a few years back, and while she worked, George and I made day trips to various sites in the beautiful cliff, canyon, and mountain country of western Colorado and eastern Utah. This particular day took us to Arches National Park and then Moab, Utah, the location of Taco Bender’s.

A person possessing a modicum of intelligence would have depressed the accelerator when seeing the converted gas station with the restaurant’s logo prominently displayed in the old Sinclair Oil sign frame.  Even if the car inexplicably stalled and forced the travelers to stop, the cardboard-and-magic-marker sign propped against some desert scrub outside the front door that read, “Today’s Special Burrito and Fries” would keep reasonable tourists safely on the outside.

The Burton brothers were there to absorb all the atmosphere of the great western states. Though our internal voice of reason screamed at us to keep driving, our sense of adventure overwhelmed us. George pulled our sister’s Lexus into a parking lot whose main features were gaping cracks with thick clumps of grass growing from them.

The adventure did not overwhelm, but it is possible that our taste buds needed more time to become acclimated to the food of that locale. Not surprisingly, Taco Bender’s no longer exists—at least in that location. A few years later I revisited the town, and another business occupied the premises. I do not recall its name, but it was not a restaurant. I surmised that burritos and fries became the rage and Taco Bender’s relocated to a more affluent area, but I may be incorrect in that assumption.

Though there is seven years difference in our ages, George and I possess some similar traits. Thanks to our father’s genes each of us suffers from hearing loss in varying degrees. Actually, our sister and younger brother do as well, and during family get-togethers all the spouses sit and marvel at the incongruousness of the Burton family’s conversations. We are not rude to each other, we simply do not hear what the other one says and start new topics without completing the previous ones.

Another similarity is that George and I have worn beards most of our adult lives, and we have frequently been mistaken by friends, thinking he was I or I was he. I once worked at a job for 11 years and wore a beard when hired. Seven years into the job, I decided to shave, and when I showed up at work the next morning many of my fellow workers did not know who I was. I have not shaved my beard since.

George no longer wears a beard. Overnight—at least it seemed like overnight—his hair went from brown to white, along with the beard. He has a streak of vanity, and when someone mentioned that the gray made him look older, the beard came off forever.

Our wives concluded that the trait we share the most is that we are slow learners because we did not seem to learn from our trips.

Most people I know enjoy live music. George and I do, and we thought we were in for a unique and memorable experience a few years ago when we visited the ParkeCounty (Indiana) Covered Bridge Festival, just north of Terre Haute. This festival is huge, attracting 250,000 visitors or more over a 10-day span. The live music this particular year was a group of pan flute musicians from Ecuador. The festival is held in towns throughout the county, and two different groups of musicians played at two of these locations. One was in a small town named Bridgeton, aptly named because a 140-year-old covered bridge dissects it. Adjacent to the bridge is an old grist mill, complete with water wheel, and the musicians set up their equipment in the grass next to the mill.

Their music could be heard throughout the town, even by two middle-aged men who have limited hearing. When I first heard the music, but before I had seen them, I thought the group was going to be a bunch of Ricky Ricardos, with puffed sleeves and singing “Babaloo.” Most of them, though, wore jeans and flannel shirts with tennis shoes, certainly Latin in physical appearance, but outfitted at Wal-Mart.

There were eight musicians present. Most of them played a pan flute, but one played only the drums, while another played acoustic guitar. The pan flutes were remarkable. Not being a pan flute connoisseur, I did not realize they come in different sizes. As might be expected, the larger the flute, the deeper the sound.

We anticipated this group would play songs from their native country, which they did to a small degree. Most of their songs, however, were popular American songs from the 1960s through the present.    Simon and Garfunkel had a song in the late 1960s titled “El Condor Pasa” and in this song is an instrument that is the type we heard, but we did not expect to hear that on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” It is easy to see it just did not work well, even though the musicians were very talented and shone through on songs of their native land.

One day close to the Fourth of July in the early part of this decade, George telephoned. My wife answered, and as usual, upon hearing his voice, rolled her eyes. A trip with George always involved an entire weekend day, possibly more. She had resigned herself to the fact I was going, wherever it was, so she mouthed, “Go ahead,” even before she handed me the receiver.

A couple of other traits the Burton brothers share are the ability to be sarcastic with each other and to appreciate the other’s sarcasm and laugh at ourselves.

“I’ve found a new place,” he exclaimed, chuckling at the same time.

“What now?” I could not hide my skepticism, which he simply ignored.

“Shoals Catfish Festival.”

“Shoals…Catfish…Festival,” I repeated.

“Yeah. You know where Shoals is?”

“Sure. Been through it a number of times. Can’t say I know why they would have a catfish festival, though.”

Shoals is a small town in the southwestern quadrant of Indiana, about an hour and a half from where I live. It has never been prosperous.

“What do they do at the Catfish Festival?” I inquired.

“I don’t know. Probably have catfish. There’s a river there. Must be a lot of catfish. I bet it’s like a lot of these other festivals we’ve gone to—”

“Then that should eliminate it,” I interrupted.

Although I innately knew this was a waste of time, I agreed to go. It is like the proverb, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”

George pulled his late model Crown Victoria into my driveway. He always drove, and he always picked me up. There were a couple of reasons for this. He and his wife had more than one vehicle, so if George was gone for the day, his wife could still get out of the house. My wife and I possessed only one, and if I took it, she would be home for the entire day. The second reason was the most important one. I am a law-abiding driver and never intentionally top the posted speed limit. George was born with a birth defect: his right foot has lead in it. If we take the number of minutes it would take me to get from one place to another and multiply that number by .625, then that would be the approximate number of minutes it would take George to arrive at the same location. Amazingly, George went for over 20 years without receiving a speeding ticket.

On another adventure in the late 1990s, we went to North Carolina for some genealogical work. On the way home we had to pass through two tunnels in West Virginia. Of course, George was doing the driving, and as he exited the tunnel traveling approximately 85 miles per hour and accelerating, he passed a state trooper whose sole mission in life was to wait at the end of that tunnel and capture speeders. George never saw the patrol car, but I did and I calmly pointed it out to him, but it was too late. He got his first ticket in two decades. Over the next four weeks, he received three more tickets, forcing him to attend driving school. This produced no longstanding effect on his driving habits, though.

“I did a little research about the Catfish Festival,” said George with a smile after I climbed into the passenger seat.

“You mean there actually is research to do? Where did you find information?”

“I called town hall,” he said.


“The guy I talked to said they have booths set up along the street and sell things.”

“Define ‘things’.”

“Crafts and things, like we saw at the Covered Bridge Festival.”

That got my interest. Even though the Ecuadorian music at that festival left us unfulfilled, the festival itself is outstanding. Almost any craft or artistic item is there.

“Think they’ll have chain saw art?” I asked.

“I would think so. Of course, there’s catfish to eat as well. That’s what the festival is all about. By the way, why didn’t Denise come?”

Denise is my wife. She accompanied us on exactly one trip. I am a Civil War buff, and in 1998 there was a huge re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh, the battle that made Abraham Lincoln take notice of Ulysses Grant, future star general for the boys in blue. We made plans to stay in Jackson, Tennessee, for three days while this re-enactment was to take place. Unfortunately, a deluge dropped on the event and cancelled it. We spent one half of one day in the pouring rain and mud and saw nothing. Denise swore never to go with us anywhere again.

“What else is in Shoals?” I said, ignoring his query about my wife. George smiled and paused. “Just tell me,” I said.

“The guy I talked to at city hall is the town marshal. He said the jail is used more on the Saturday night of the Catfish Festival than at any other time of the year. He said most of it’s for drunkenness.”

“Now that sounds like a strong selling point,” I said.

“There’s a parade, and a queen, so you know there must be something to it.”

“Yeah. Right. The Catfish Queen?”

July in the Ohio Valley is hot and humid. Some nights the temperatures never drop below the 80s, and the humidity generally is in the 70-90 percent range. My sister still laughs at the people in Colorado who complain that “this humidity is unbearable” when it climbs to the 15 percent range. This day was a typical summer day: hazy, hot and humid. George usually cranks the air conditioner to the max on days like this. Then, because the air conditioner is so loud, he has to turn the radio to max as well. It really makes no difference since we cannot hear the music.

My hopes were not high as we made our way over the serpentine road to Shoals. I have taken my family on it and they have gotten motion sick as a result more than once. The motion, the heat, and the prospects for a strange festival played on my mind.

The town’s claim to fame is a large rock on the main thoroughfare appearing in the form of a huge jug balanced upon another stone. The local school’s nickname is the Jug Rox, taken from the town’s signature attraction.

We had to cross the White River to enter Shoals. I peered over the bridge, trying to spot frantic catfish attempting to escape the nets of the Catfish Festival, but I saw none.

George pointed the car in the direction of downtown. It was not difficult to find. We drove through the main street, but saw nothing on it. However, down one side street, going in the direction of the river, we spotted some booths.

“There it is,” said George excitedly.

“Not much there,” I replied.

“Probably just the outskirts of the festival,” he said.

We parked and made our way there. It took us no longer than two minutes to deduce that this was not the outskirts at all, but the festival in its entirety. A handful of booths lined the street, but most of the booths were uninhabited at the moment, and completely void of not just people, but wares. Besides us, there were a few other people there, maybe 20 or so, but no one was buying what little there was to buy.

When I was young, the town in which I lived had a yearly event called the Street Fair, which was a benefit for our local volunteer fire department. A person could extract as much fun as there was to get out of the Street Fair in 15 minutes or less. The Shoals Catfish Festival made the Street Fair look like Disney World. There were no attractions that we could find at the Catfish Festival. The few booths contained yard sale items, none of which interested us.

We did stop at a local store. I do not recall its name, but it was the rough equivalent of a Five and Dime-type store that existed when I was a child. There were items that are no longer manufactured, covered in dust, and candy sitting in open barrels, which I would not buy or eat.

To be fair to the Catfish Festival, I believe the day we went there was the set-up day and the festival had not begun in earnest. I have seen photographs from a local newspaper of the festival queen riding in an open convertible during the festival’s parade, and there are plenty of people lining the street in these photographs. It is possible our timing was off by a day or so and therefore our observations were not accurate.

George and I drove an hour and a half, one way, to visit the Catfish Festival and stayed less than a half hour total. The Shoals Catfish Festival immediately became the standard for which we measure all other fruitless things we have done. It is the low-water mark for poor decisions we made in how to spend our free time and money.

We did stay out of the jail, however.

The Mystery About Mysteries


So many people love a good mystery, and the more complex it is, and the bigger “Gotcha” moment that one brings makes them all the more lovely. Why is this? What is the attraction with a whodunit that has us stepping up to the mystery bar and ordering another tall one?

What is the mystery about a mystery?

Why did the Perry Mason series last nine years on television? Or Murder, She Wrote crank out new episodes for a dozen years? Or Diagnosis Murder continue for eight seasons?

Masterpiece Mystery began its long run in 1980, and although it took a few years’ hiatus, it still produces wonderful programs today, including the most recent one, titled Endeavour, which premiered in the United States on Sunday, July 7.  Recently Inspector Lewis finished its run, and later this year Foyle’s War should do the same. These are delicious mysteries.

Forget about television, what about the cinema? Countless mysteries fill the shelves of producing companies since nearly the inception of film. What makes Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Witness for the Prosecution captivating, must-see drama (along with a plethora of other titles?)

How about books? There are too many authors to list. I love Agatha Christie—as can be attested by the three movie titles above—and apparently so did literally the entire world for over half a century, as attested by the fact that she is number three all-time in publication, behind the Bible and Shakespeare.

Here is what earns the highest marks for me when it comes to a mystery. I crave the complex, and a story with numerous subplots that require unraveling is an ideal one. Of course I want to solve the mystery prior to the end of the book, but I also love being legitimately fooled. Legitimately fooled is when the author presents the clues in the context of the story and does not conjure up an obscure killer with an otherwise undiscovered motive. Being unfairly fooled is a reason not to read anything else by the author

The complex does not need confine itself to mysteries, as they can exist in any drama. An example is from the movie The Sting. After watching and enjoying the movie a number of times I finally realized that the “sting” in the movie is directed more towards the audience than against Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). The writer fooled us as well as the character in the story, and that made my admiration for the work abound.

Charles Dickens also mastered the complex, weaving an intricate story with multiple subplots and connecting them together late in the story. Reading one of his stories, especially A Tale of Two Cities, is similar to admiring a piece of art hanging on a wall and not really seeing the subtle touches until a later examination.

So what makes a good mystery? In my opinion it has to be complexity. We demand resolution, but we demand a satisfactory resolution as well, meaning one that is logical and ties up the loose ends for us, even though some things may be open-ended.