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Copyright © 2006 Richard Peck
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My dad made house calls in the Ford. He was a very well-thought-of doctor in the St. Louis of that time. A tall man with black curly hair parted in the middle and steel-rimmed spectacles gripping the bridge of his nose. He wore high celluloid collars, and I never saw him without a necktie.
I thought he carried all the wisdom of the world in the black bag that traveled to house calls with him on the front seat of the Ford. With the same silent skill that he used to set a bone, he could patch a tire.
Apparently, my dad had been young once, but I couldn't picture it. Even at the age of fifteen I knew but little about who he was and where he'd come from. And so I knew but little about myself.
My dad was what they called a self-made man. Though he'd succeeded in St. Louis, he'd come from a little town called Grand Tower on the other side of the Mississippi River down low in Illinois.
All I knew of Dad's people was that they'd lived through the Civil War.Imagine an age when there were still people around who'd seen U. S. Grant with their own eyes, and men who'd voted for Lincoln. People you could reach out and touch.
My dad's father, the first Dr. William Hutchings, had been a doctor in the Union Army. My grandmother and grandfather Hutchings still lived in what Dad called the homeplace, down in Grand Tower, that wide spot in the road.
I couldn't remember visiting them before. My mother was very standoffish about my dad's side of the family. She was a St. Louis girl, and we boys were named for her side of the family. I was Howard Leland Hutchings. My little brothers, twins, were Raymond and Earl. At the age of five, they were too young to figure much in this story, but they came along on the trip too.
Dad worked a six-and-a-half-day week. It was a great occasion when he found an afternoon to take me to a Browns game. That was before the Browns forsook St. Louis to be the Baltimore Orioles.
But now he had announced that we were going to visit his folks-motoring there and back in the Ford. It was the summer of 1916, and war was raging across Europe, the Great War. Dad said it was just a question of time before America got in it. In wartime there'd be restrictions on travel, and so it was now or never.
The next thing I remember is the morning we left, like the dawn of creation. It was a July day breathless with St. Louis heat and the thrill of the open road unwinding before us. Our preparations had taken days. We'd been through the toolbox time and again. We'd filled as many cans of gasoline as we could strap to the running boards. Dad had personally filed down the points on the spark plugs. I hadn't slept a wink in two nights, and now the moment of leaving was upon us.
Mother wasn't going and didn't want us to go. And I didn't know why. I remember her up on the porch and the Ford there in the middle of Maryland Avenue. Dad and I wore dusters and caps with goggles. One of the extra features of our Ford was a windshield. But it was always laid flat across the hood for city driving. The Ford was a touring car, which meant it had a canvas pull-up roof in case of rain, or for when you spent a night on the road.
You had to crank the car a good ten minutes to get it going, and Dad left that part to me. The knack for starting a Ford was to jack up a rear wheel. He got the little boys settled on the rear seat, but they kept spilling out of the car, running back to the house for something they'd forgotten. I wondered if we'd ever get away.
But at last the engine caught and turned over. The Ford coughed twice and came to life. Dad broke a fresh egg into the radiator so that it would hard-boil and seal the leaks. The boys were more or less settled. Dad let out the brake and fiddled with the gas lever. We'd already aroused the neighborhood. Now we were off in a volley of sharp reports from the tailpipe. And Mother was turning back to the house.
I ought to have kept a journal of the trip, but that's not the way of a fifteen-year-old boy. I remember we were hardly over on the Illinois side before Earl learned he was subject to car sickness and Raymond was hit with a great wave of homesickness. Dad had something in ,his black bag for Earl. He cured Raymond by saying it wasn't too late to take him back home and leave him behind.
Dad's plan was to keep the Mississippi River on our right side and try to be in the vicinity of Chester, Illinois, by nightfall. We made good time on dry roads south from Dupo and didn't have our first flat until very near Waterloo. In all, we did pretty well with only four flats that day, one in each tire. But it seemed like the Ford was on a jack more than it was on the road. We pumped the tires up by hand. The last sign we saw for free air was outside Columbia.
The little boys needed a steady flow of water from the bottles we'd brought. This made for endless stops at the side of the road. This was a strictly men-only expedition, so we occasionally all four stood in a row over a ditch when the road was empty both directions. An hour of driving would pass before we'd see another car.
We'd pull up by open pasture and drop a ruler into the tank to gauge the gas level. The tank was set in right under the front seats, so it was like riding a bomb, though I never heard of one going off. On our stops, the boys could run wild in the field, wrestling and tussling and mauling each other like puppies. I couldn't remember being that age.
While we were watching them, Dad said, "Twins run in families and tend to skip a generation."
"Was your dad a twin?"
"My mother and her brother are twins. You'll meet Noah. They all live together in the homeplace. My dad and mother and my aunt and uncle. People lived however they could in years past, sharing out what they had. Seemed like most of my dad's patients paid him in fish out of the river and vegetables out of their gardens. A doctor doesn't get rich in Grand Tower."
"So you had four parents," I said.
"In a manner of speaking, I did." Dad watched the boys. "It wasn't a bad way to grow up. They taught me how to make do, and to keep my private business private. Pretty good lessons."
Down around Red Bud the ruts were deeper, and there was more standing water. We were getting farther into Southern Illinois, the territory they call Egypt for some reason. The farms were hardscrabble yellow clay. They plowed around trees growing clumped in the middles of fields. Two or three hills were so steep that we had to turn the Ford around and go up in reverse. So when the sun was getting down in the west, it was time to call it a day.
Two things my dad mistrusted: water from an unfamiliar well and all hotel rooms on the Illinois side of the river. He could give you a short and sweet scientific description of the common bedbug that made you happy to spend the night on the same car seat you'd bounced along on all day.
We pulled off the road just at dusk and built a little campfire. The boys found sticks to roast wienies on. Now we were early explorers, of the Lewis and Clark party, sitting cross-legged around the wilderness fire. Dad sat just out of the glow on the running board. With any luck, we'd be in Grand Tower tomorrow night by this time.
He must have wondered what the place would look like to us city boys who until today had thought the whole world was paved.
"There never was a lot to Grand Tower," he said, "though it showed some progress after the war. When I was a boy, they had a saddle factory, a cigar plant, a gunsmith shop or two, a brick works. Enos Walker started a sawmill that peeled logs and made strips for splint baskets. My uncle Noah worked there for years."
The little boys' eyes were glazing over. "But it's not much more than a ghost town now," Dad remarked.
This alerted the boys. They looked around with big eyes. The trees were black with night, and now they noticed where they were. "A ghost town isn't quite the same thing as a ghost," Dad said. But seeing he had their full attention, he added, "Of course, every little old town had a haunt or two."
From back in the trees came the rushing of some night bird's wings. The rusty creak of a turning windpump sounded across the darkness.
"There's a hill over the town called the Devil's Backbone," Dad said.
Ghosts and now the devil. He had us in the palm of his hand.
"The house where I grew up straddles the Backbone about halfway along. Now a road runs between the Backbone and the river. A ghost or something very like it has been seen crossing that road on dark nights like this."
I suspected Dad was playing up the story for us, but it worked on me like a charm. The boys were about in each other's laps.
"It's a woman," Dad said, "in old-time skirts with gray hair streaming down her back. She'll dart out in the road, running hard, making for the river, where she seems to throw herself in. It's been reported for years. Any number of horses have shied, and buggies turned over. There are people who won't go down that road after dark."
Steadying my voice, I said, "Dad, did you ever see ... anything?"
"Not me." He stood up, working the kinks out of his back. "You know how these old stories grow in the telling." But then he added, "I don't know what my mother thought. I know she didn't like to hear talk about that particular ghost. Too close to home, I suppose."
Then we were all too sleepy to make it through another moment. We pulled up the roof of the Ford and rolled the boys in car rugs to settle them on the backseat. They were joyous at turning in for the first time in their lives with dirty faces and necks. Dad drifted off, sitting bolt upright behind the wheel with his necktie in place. The rusty sound of the distant windpump turned in my dreams until daylight.
We made it to Grand Tower by the next afternoon, though we'd overheated at Rockwood. The road nearly played out past Fountain Bluff. Then we were coming down a last hill, above the town, steeping like tea in the deep summer damp.
Above the town Dad pointed out a long, sharp-backed hill as the Devil's Backbone. Across the river on the Missouri side another stone outcropping rose straight out of the water. This was Tower Rock, and it gave the town its name, Dad said.
The whole heat-hazed place looked as old as the rocks it nestled among. It didn't seem likely to me that anybody had ever been young here.
We drove up the Backbone as near to the house as we could get. I remember it now like a moving-picture show of that time, without sound and all in black and white.
I see the little old lady on the porch with her hands in. her apron. Grandma Tilly: a tiny face wrinkled like a walnut, and wisps of hair drawn back in a knot. Behind her apron she's slender as a gift, and there's something young about her. She dances with the pleasure of seeing Dad stride up the hill. To her, he's "young Bill," we're young Bill's boys. She's been waiting for this moment.
Behind her in a rocker is her husband, older than she is, ancient. Waxy with age, trapped by the years and his chair, but alive behind his eyes. He has a shock of fine white hair and a curling, somehow military mustache. He wears a once-ivory alpaca suit in this stifling afternoon, and a high collar under his chins. He's too old to stand, but his loose-boned, veiny hand comes out to Dad, and his eyes are wet.
The camera of my memory ducks under the tin-roofed porch and enters the house as everybody did, through the kitchen door. A black iron range stands before the old open hearth. A door to the hall shows the way upstairs. There are big square bedrooms above, smelling of old times, and the old. A big chest of drawers stands in the upstairs hall. Beyond it in the best room that looks out on the river is Dad's aunt Delphine, in a four-poster bed.
The room hangs in lavender scent. It's so crowded with things, you could miss a smaller woman in the bed. But my great-aunt is very stout. Her hands, restless on the turned-back sheet, look like little pillows. Rings are embedded in her fingers. She's propped below a picture on the wall of a man with yellow hair in an old-fashioned costume.
She turns startling violet eyes on us. Under her beribboned bed cap, her black hair is in ringlets like a girl's. She has a faint mustache. When she sees my dad, her plump hands fly to her mouth, and the tears flow in dark streaks down her face.
In the moving picture memory makes, Great-uncle Noah is under the window of his wife's room, weeding one-handed in the heat of the day. But that can't be. The garden ran down from the far side of the house, and Uncle Noah would have been on the porch with his sister Tilly to greet us. He was certainly there on the day we left-only a little bent over, in his shirtsleeves, one of them pinned up above the missing arm.
In the first moments of our visit, even the little boys were all eyes. They'd been promised snakes around the woodshed and catfish they could catch themselves. They'd banked on shoeless days and bathless nights. But just for a moment they were caught in the grip of this place. They felt the weight of its history, and mystery.
So did I. The paper was loose and peeling on the walls. I wondered how many layers you'd have to scrape away until you came to the time when these old people were young. If they ever were.
I wondered how quiet you'd have to be to hear the voices of those times.
Chapter Two The House Astride the Devil's Backbone
"Tilly!" Mama called out to me from the kitchen. "Go find Cass."
The sun was winking away behind the big rock across the river. Tower Rock, standing high out of the water. A grove of trees grew over the top of it. Tower Rock rose on the other bank of the river and our Devil's Backbone here on the Illinois side. A dangerous stretch of river ran between-our stretch of the river.
Even though Tower Rock was over in Missouri, with the river between us, it gave our town its name: Grand Tower. Nobody wanted to live in a town named after the devil.
It wasn't any use to holler for Cass from the porch. Up in her private places on her hill, she was deaf unto the world. Cass was a terrible worry to Mama, and I thought anything that worried Mama ought to worry me.
As quick as the sun was down, a chill came off the water. It was the end of April with some spring showing, time for the river to stir itself. Word had reached us that the ice was breaking up below St. Paul and rotting above Dubuque.
Excerpted from El Rio Que Nos Divide by Richard Peck Copyright © 2006 by Richard Peck. Excerpted by permission.
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