JR

 

The treacherous winter of 1949 will be etched in my memory until the day I die.  In January or February of that year violent death paid me a visit.  The exact month has faded from my recollection, but the month isn’t important, what is important was the unusual weather of that winter and the tragedy it helped to create.  Global warming and posttraumatic stress syndrome had yet to be defined and understood.  That’s not to say they didn’t exist.

1949 was the year JR died.

The year before my sisters and I had moved from a St. Louis suburb to Arrow Rock, Missouri to live with my mother and stepfather.  Although it should have been a culture shock moving from the big city to a small town of four hundred people in central Missouri, I quickly adjusted and made friends. My companions were George Junior Fischer, Toughie Boggs, Walt Korty and JR McClain to name a few.  We were all fifteen or sixteen years old, except for JR, who was around nine.  JR was a likeable out going child who had no friends his own age to play with.  We were his only companions, and we grew to accept and love him.

It was a great year for sledding.  Five inches of snow fell followed immediately by freezing rain that glazed so thickly we could walk across the crust without breaking through.  Main Street and the road that went down into the State Park was a solid sheet of ice.  We’d belly flop onto our sleds at the top of Main Street’s gradual hill and leisurely coast through downtown, past the Old Tavern, past George Caleb Bingham’s home to Godsy’s Diggings at the end of the street.  If we weren’t going too fast, we could skid ninety-degrees right and highball it down the long steep hill into the Arrow Rock State Park.

But the ride demanded a lot of walking after each trip and we quickly realized that the cost for our adrenaline rush was too high.  Then we discovered it was also fun and less work to grab the bumper of a car leaving downtown and hitch a ride to the top of the hill.  After releasing, we would coast to Elmer and Mary Green’s filling station at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 41.  “The Station” was also a gathering place for locals and nearby farmers to escape from the elements, a place to swap stories over a beer or challenge a friend to a game of pool.  At the end of our ride, we often went into the station for a bottle of Orange Crush or Grapette while waiting for a car to catapult us back downtown.  Life couldn’t have been better

Maybe JR was too young to challenge fate on a sled behind a car; maybe we all were, or more likely we were just plain foolish and reckless.  JR had the dangerous habit of pulling out to the left when he let go of a bumper.  We’d warned him many times of the danger that he might pull into the path of an oncoming car.  But little kid that he was, he didn’t listen very well.

The DeHavens’ owned and operated the Arrow Rock General Store and their nineteen-year-old son, Ronald, often went to Marshall fourteen miles away for supplies.  I was in the store one day when he was about to leave on one of those trips.  He invited me to ride along, I accepted.  We climbed into the flat bed truck and drove out of town.

Highway 41 was plowed and sanded and posed no unusual driving hazard.  When we returned to Arrow Rock Ron DeHaven turned off the highway and started up Main Street.  At the top of the hill we met an oncoming car.  It was an old Pontiac belonging to one of the Turley’s.  Just before we passed, I caught a flash of brown darting out into our lane from behind the car.  A voice silently screamed inside of me, “please miss him, please, please miss him!”  The back dual wheels struck something and bounced up as if it had run over a large rock.  The voice was even louder now.  “Please, please let it be his leg!”

Before the truck had even stopped I opened the door and bolted out.  I was in a daze; I couldn’t believe this was really happening.  I wanted…I hoped with all my being that when I rounded the back of the truck I would see JR with a broken leg, his face looking up at me in pain and terror.  It was not to be.  JR was dead.  The dual wheels had passed directly over his head.

Ron DeHaven had not yet gotten out of the truck.  When I looked at him through the side window his face was chalky white, unmoving, looking straight ahead, obviously in shock, as I was.

I retreated to the passenger side of the truck.  The world around me had become bathed in a surrealistic red haze.  I felt as if I were going to faint.  In that one single glance at what was left of JR, I had not only seen all I wanted to see, it had been much, much more than I wanted to see.  I had seen enough to last a lifetime.

Today the horrible image remains sharp and clear in my mind.  Unlike other memories that dim with the passage of time this one has not faded in the least.

But that day the horror was not yet over.

News of the accident spread rapidly and people began to gather.  They stood in shock, disbelieving, unable to speak.  Before the Sheriff arrived events turned even more terrible.  JR’s parents came racing up the street in their car.  His mother, after seeing what had happened to their only child went into hysterics.  She beat her knuckles bloody raw on the steering wheel before someone had the presence of mind to take her away.

You’d think that with all we’d seen that day that nothing more appalling could possibly happen.  But it did.  When the body had been removed a dog, JR’s dog, wandered over to where his master had lain and began lapping at tissue and blood that remained on the packed snow.  The rage rose in me like a sudden storm.  I wanted to kill that son of a bitch.  It seemed bad enough that the animal would desecrate the body of this young boy, but that it was his own dog was too unthinkable to even contemplate.  It was as though he was cannibalizing his brother or best friend.  I screamed and chased the mongrel until he disappeared down the street.   Mercifully, Old Man Korte had seen what had happened and quickly cleaned up all traces of JR’s remains.

The funeral and burial of her only son was no less traumatic for Virginia McClain than the sight of his dead body in the street days before.  It was the only burial I had ever witnessed in which the coffin was lowered into the ground before the visitors departed.

A week later a coroner’s inquest was conducted.  I was there.  No blame was laid at anyone’s feet, but I know that Ronald DeHaven laid tons of blame-all of it upon himself.   He was never the same again.

As time went by I recovered and put it behind me, but for months after the accident I had nightmares.  I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming.  In nearly every dream I saw JR McClain’s brains steaming on the snow next to his broken skull.

I see it now.

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