Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Thirtieth Day of May

Still remember those quiet summer mornings of the thirtieth day of May. My brother and I jumped out of bed and run barefoot through dew covered grass to the bridge that stared up like two giant eyes from our valley. It was always covered with small pink roses on that day. We quickly cut them and placed them in water filled mason jars, sometimes the ones used for catching lighting bugs the night before. Next the ever-perennial tiger lilies that grew along the stone fence encompassing the front yard. Then the iris garden; loved the fragrance of the lavender. Finally the peonies with stems so long and blossoms so pretentious they required a bucket rather than a jar. And then we run upstairs to get mom and dad from bed for our annual “pilgrimage” to Forest Llewellyn.

Remember passing Memorial Park; so quiet the thirtieth day of May. Cumberland Academy with its towering steeple once stood within its confines. In earlier days, other than the court house, it was the city’s only place of worship. Here, the godly Joseph Baldwin first conducted his Normal School, and the less than godly Union Colonel John McNeil situated his artillery on that mount, savaging a largely unarmed contingent of the Confederacy during the Battle of Kirksville. Sadly, something more than history was lost when Cumberland Academy eventually burned to the ground. An obelisk, flanked by mute ordnances, later inherited the tranquil solitude. Although inscribed with the names of those who never returned from the war to end all wars, more names were added as years went by, replacing the remembrance of those forgotten. Here restless tumult had been replaced by silence, interrupted only by the sound of a mourning dove or the laughter of children on the thirtieth day of May.
“Albert L. Holmes” reads his headstone in the family plot that bears his name. Knew so little of him other than his milling shop on Franklin that, a hundred years after his death, still remains, and his house of ten gables exactly one block away. I happened across the 1911 History of Adair County just today: “Mr. Holmes was the most extensive contractor Kirksville has ever had.” “He build very many of the business houses and dwellings of the town.” “Among the public building erected by him are the Baptist church, Christian church, Cumberland Presbyterian church, M. E. Church…” all in Kirksville, the City of Churches.

His daughter Essie who kept his records lies nearby. Paged through her massive ledger today inscribed with lavender ink and pin. Her entries span childhood through Normal School; her final entries include that period of the 1899 “cyclone.”

Beside her, Orie J. Smith who shared her father’s passion for wood and brick and stone. Northeast of the city he setup a single narrow scaffold sixty-four feet high on the center of a sixty-four foot locus on the ground. Secured redundantly with anchor and tether, it perhaps engendered a spectacle reminiscence of the image setup by an ancient king on the plains of Babylon. Orie spanned the space from pinnacle to earth beginning with a single precarious member at the will of the wind. In recent days the completed structure was again at the will of the wind as massive doors, undisturbed for almost a hundred years, were ripped from their tracks and the fields covered with debris.

Essie met her husband after dismissing her class at Benton School one winter day. Quickly recognizing a blizzard as an opportunity to rescue the fair “damsel” as she floundered in the snow, Orie by chance happened by with his horse drawn sleigh . And a short distance from these two lay Jacob, their child forever six.

And then my mother led the way to a place only she could find. Dolly came home from school one day all wet and cold and talking strange: “I reached and touched the fingers of God” she said. After going to sleep that night, things were not the same. As she grew more ill, her desperate mother searched and bought the only doll the little house would ever know. And just before she went to sleep one last time, my mother remembered Dolly singing “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells….” A short time later all her things were burned… except the little doll. Her mother put it in a drawer never to be opened. And my mother could never forget her mother crying as the little body was laid to rest in a grave without a stone.

Before returning, my brother and I sometimes visited a mass grave on the Forest side. One of my father’s early memories was of an honor guard firing a volley in remembrance of Twenty-Six Confederate soldiers. And of he and his brother, oblivious to the significance of the occasion, gleefully running to pick up shell casings. Pearl Harbor and Buna all too soon altered that innocence.

In recent years, a second monument appeared revealing a truth long latent in that trench. The day after the battle, by order of Colonel John McNeil, fifteen captives were tried, convicted, and shot where the old Wabash Depot once stood. And on the third day, Colonel Frisby McCullough was court-martialed on contrived charges, found guilty, sentenced to be shot, and with the apparent consent of McNeil, “paraded up and down the streets of Kirksville amid the jeers and shouts of joy of the Federals.” However, at his request as an officer, he was given one concession, to conduct his own execution: “What I have done, I have done as a principle of right. Aim at the heart. Fire!” However, his executioners failed to comply. And as a second volley was being prepared, he continued from the ground: “May God forgive you this barbarous murder.”
A remembrance of the City of Churches on the thirtieth day of May.

"And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.... But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Act 6:15-7:60). 

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