May 7, 2014
The small town of Golconda, population about seven hundred, is in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest, on the bank of the Ohio River. A lot of senior citizens live there because rents and expenses are cheap. Paducah, Kentucky is the nearest large town. Golconda makes Alton seem big. The town is enclosed in the forest. Not everyone there likes the fact that a national park was created by the acquiring of their land and the lowering of their tax base.
I did three presentations down there, on the history and artifacts of Indians, sponsored by the Pope County Historical Society. The evening show was at the high school, and I appeared in two seventh grade history classes.
The Dari-Barr, a small restaurant, is the hub for conversation and gossip. The Liars Table is in the back right. The people who sit there verbally jab at one another and talk politics and farming. The menu says you get one coffee refill, but you actually get as many as you want.
And if you’re dining with eighty-something Miss Bettye Lauderdale, you get anything you want, and pronto. Miss Bettye put me up in her home for two nights. She is a retired school teacher. She has taught anyone in Golconda over the age of forty. She doesn’t cook, so I saw a lot of the Dari-Barr. Over one of our breakfasts, Miss Bettye told me to watch her former students as they came in. Some would take her by the hand and glow; some would walk by her with grim faces—they were the below average students. Either way: “I don’t care,” Miss Bettye said, in her gravelly voice.
Miss Bettye rides a stationary bike in her livingroom and watches FOX News. The bike is a real bike placed in a homemade frame. “Got to keep the bones moving, Mr. Baldwin.” “I prefer my orange juice to the Dari-Barr’s—shall we have juice before we dine?” Yes, Miss Bettye.
Her dining room window looks out on a wooded hillside and sidewalk, where multiple bird feeders and iron wheels with ears of corn are replenished each day by neighbors. Squirrels dined on the corn, as did a box turtle, which emerged from the underbrush and ran (well, if turtles may be said to run) to the corn and gulped it up. Doves and finches and grackles and chickadees descended on the seeds, in the Bird Dari-Barr. The outside pillars of Miss Bettye’s carport are studded with translucent minerals and there are beautiful chunks of crystals along the ground. And the house displays many photos of her beloved husband Gene, who died several years ago, and her daughters and grandchildren, and many pithy sayings on pillows and refrigerator magnets, about teachers and grandmas.
My friend Annie Howerton took me to the Pope County Courthouse, built in the 1800s, were she introduced me to Connie Gibbs, the county clerk, who is the size of a pixie and whose smile could generate electricity. Annie bragged on me and Connie allowed as how she was sorry she couldn’t come to my evening presentation, as there was a county board meeting that night. I noticed a large steel door behind her. Was that a walk-in safe? Connie smiled and signaled me forward. “Oh my,” Annie said, “she’s going to take Gene into the vault.”
And in the vault we went, and there were piles of records dating back to early in the nineteenth century. We perused over documents of land deals and wedding certificates (I read one from 1823) and birth and death records. Connie talks about history the way I talk about Indian artifacts. We became fast friends.
Annie and Elizabeth Garcia and Liz’s sister Barbara Slyder took me on a tour of the Pope County Historical Society Museum. (Annie has lived in Egypt and Liz studied opera in Italy, and now they live in Little Egypt and they get the irony.) It was a cornucopia of pioneer artifacts: old farm implements, oval framed photographs, bundles of letters, old time furniture and jewelry, posters and on and on. There were mannequins dressed in period clothing and sporting bad wigs. An overactive imagination might see the mannequins come alive, but sadly, I don’t possess such an imagination, so I wasn’t afraid.
My presentations were fun. Miss Bettye and my congenial host, Tim Trovillion, whose drawl is Mississippian, sat in the back of the class and watched. The seventh grade kids love their teacher Seth Graves, a young, known germophobe who keeps a giant container of antibacterial hand sanitizer on his desk. Seth is a historical re-enactor and he often comes to class wearing buckskins or Civil War dress. He laughed when I told the kids there were no Indian teepees east of the Mississippi River. He had been telling them that for the entire school year.
Afterward, Miss Bettye said, “Well done, Mr. Baldwin. I am impressed.”
The evening event was well attended, and Caleb and Tyler, from the seventh grade, showed up and acted as my assistants. Joe Crabb, an elderly gentleman on a crutch came into the meeting room. Two men followed Joe with a four by four foot frame of Indian artifacts, each piece wired into the case with copper. We pored over the artifacts and I helped identify them. Joe Crabb is not a crab. Two heavyset brothers invited me to come to their farm, to view what they believed to be Indian burial mounds. All in all, it was a good night, topped off by dining at the Diver Down Restaurant with Annie and her childhood friend, the lovely Alice Thodoropoulos.
As I loaded the car the next morning, Miss Bettye Lauderdale handed me a piece of paper with her address and phone number on it and said, “My house is always open to you, Mr. Baldwin.” I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
We hugged. I was one of the good students, and she did care.