Friday, September 19, 2008

The Day the Dogs Barked

Unexplained events happen all of the time. Some say they are merely coincidental, while others attribute them to a higher power. I’ll leave this one up to you.

My grandfather, Jim Rench, died unexpectedly on a hot August day in 1955, nine days past his 78th birthday. Soon thereafter, my grandmother, Alice Rench, began to experience health problems of her own, so a few months later she reluctantly moved from her home to live with my parents and me in our tiny, two-bedroom house.

Like nearly everyone in Elnora, she used Dr. James R. Rohrer as her family doctor. I guess today he would be referred to as her ‘primary care physician.’ However, she occasionally saw a specialist in Indianapolis. In early May, 1957, after school in Elnora had been dismissed for the summer, my mother drove my grandmother and me to Indianapolis for an appointment with my grandmother’s ‘other’ doctor. They had decided in advance that it would also be a mini-vacation for the two of us. My grandmother and I planned on staying for two weeks. Her son, Bill Rench, lived in Indianapolis and her oldest daughter, Audrey Rench Wilkin, resided in McCordsville, a northeastern suburb of Indianapolis.

My mom left my grandmother and me at Uncle Bill’s house and returned home to Elnora. After my grandmother saw her doctor a few days later, Uncle Bill and Aunt Kathryn drove us to McCordsville to spend the rest of our vacation with Aunt Audrey and Uncle ‘Kewp’ who owned a restaurant and service station located on State Road 67, also known as Pendleton Pike. Their house was a few hundred yards north of their business on the opposite side of that very busy highway. Each afternoon, I would routinely walk from Aunt Audrey’s home to the little general store on the highway which also housed the Post Office to check the mail and purchase a snack before heading back.

On May 9, 1957, I made my usual late-afternoon trek to the Post Office. Since there was no mail that day, when I returned to the house I sat down in a chair in the front yard to enjoy my goodies rather than going inside. My aunt and uncle raised dachshund puppies and kept the young ones and their mothers on the screened-in porch at the rear of the house. I had been seated just a few minutes when the dogs started barking loudly and my grandmother and aunt (who was on her afternoon break from the restaurant) both ran out to the front porch. My aunt yelled, “James Emerson, are you all right? Where is the crash?” When I asked her what she was talking about, she said she and my grandmother both heard a violent crash on the highway, and that was also when the dogs started barking. Aunt Audrey went so far as to walk over to the edge of Highway 67 and look up and down the road to satisfy herself that there was no wreck before she and my grandmother went back into the house. It was just after 4:00 p.m.

Later that evening, my father called to tell us that my mother had been critically injured in an accident with a drunk driver on her way home from work at the General Electric plant in Linton. The two women with her had both been killed. She was in the back seat, a factor which may have saved her life. She normally arrived home from work about 4:20 p.m. each afternoon.

The next day, the following article appeared in the local Washington, IN newspaper:

Two Elnora Mothers Killed in Truck-Car Crash Thursday

“Two Elnora mothers were killed instantly late yesterday afternoon when the car in which they were riding smashed head-on into a truck one and one-fourth miles north of Newberry in southern Greene County on highway 57. Another Elnora woman, a passenger in the car, and the truck driver were injured.

Mrs. Odyne McCullough, 44 years old, driver of the car, and Mrs. Esther Shaffer, 45 years old, were killed when the 1956 Chevrolet in which they were riding collided with a 1951 GMC one-ton truck just north of Newberry at 4:10 p.m. yesterday. Mrs. Elizabeth Johnson, 45, also of Elnora, a third passenger in the car, was injured in the collision and taken to the Freeman-Greene County Hospital at Linton. Also injured in the collision was the driver of the truck, Eugene H. Powell, age 50, R.R. 1, Poseyville. He was listed in fair condition at the hospital.

State Trooper J. O. Smith said the two vehicles collided during a light rain when the truck veered across the center line into the path of the car.

The three women were en route home from work at the General Electric Company Plant at Linton when the accident occurred. The Chevrolet was going south on the highway and the truck was going north. The truck veered across the center line and the car struck the bed of the truck in front of the rear wheels. The impact of the collision was so great that rescuers had to pry open the doors of the car to get the women out. Both vehicles were considered to be a total loss after the fatal accident.

Mrs. Johnson was rushed to the hospital by ambulance suffering from a fractured right leg and a fractured left elbow. She also had severe lacerations and was suffering from shock.”

Because my mother spent the next several weeks in the hospital and was unable to take care of me when she first came home while she was still recovering from her injuries, I stayed in McCordsville with my grandmother. She became progressively more ill and passed away on July 24, never to see her hometown of Elnora or her daughter, Elizabeth, again. My mother was still walking with her leg in a plaster cast during my grandmother’s funeral.

I later found out that my mother nearly died that first night in the hospital, her heartbeat declining to only six beats per minute. She remarked that she must have been saved because her son still needed his mother and the other two women’s children were already grown. In any case, I’m thankful that she survived. However, she carried adverse physical problems related to that tragic accident for the next seventeen years until her death in 1974.

Was it really just a remarkable coincidence that the dogs barked and my aunt and grandmother ran outside at the same time my mother and her two friends were involved in that terrible accident? Or did they really somehow hear the crash over a hundred miles away? Only God knows for sure.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Roots Revisited

In a famous novel published a few years before I was born, Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. I wonder how often writers who get nostalgic for an earlier time and place have referred to that book and to those immortal words. I don’t get back to Elnora as often as I’d like, but when I get the urge it’s almost like I’m being drawn to that tiny Daviess County town of my youth like a paper clip to a powerful magnet.

Such was the case a few days ago. I have been wanting to go back home for months but at the last minute always found something else that required my attention just a bit more than my need to travel the hundred miles from my home on the southeast side of Indianapolis to my parents’ former home on the northeast side of Elnora. However, on August 26, the magnet pulled so hard that Carol and I headed south on those Indiana roads that have become so familiar to me over my lifetime that I could almost drive them blindfolded.

Because we have a dog that we left at home in his kennel, we were on a fairly tight schedule. I had several things I wanted to accomplish on this little excursion and tried without much success to prioritize their importance. First, I have an ancestral family photograph that is at least a hundred years old. I had an educated guess as to the identity of the subjects, but I wasn’t 100% sure. So I needed help with that. Then, I have recently reconnected with Bill Porter, a classmate and good friend from Elnora’s Class of 1961. He and his bride Judy Campbell Porter have been friends of Carol and me since our dating days. Unfortunately, we hadn’t seen them for many years, so we were eager to visit with them and not only share memories, but catch up on our current lives.

When we arrived at Elnora, we headed to Fairview Cemetery (must be an old folks thing) to pay respects to my parents and the many other Johnson, Hannah, and Rench relatives resting there. Since I had recently written about a family friend, Harve Vories, I also wanted to find his headstone to determine his date of death. When we found the marker, I was shocked on two counts. Harve died in 1967, the same year our first son, Scott, was born. So the stool he made for Scott took on an even more special meaning knowing Harve was 90 years old at the time he made it just months before his death. The tombstone also marked the death of Harve’s wife, Dell, in 1943 at the age of 64 years. Although Dell died one year before I was born, I felt so badly that I had completely forgotten about her when I wrote the “Harve” article. Now I do remember that he mentioned Dell often during those many times I visited with him during my childhood. He missed her very much and I can’t believe I had blocked her from my mind.

As we drove past my grandparents’ former property at the east end of Main Street, I stopped and took a picture of the only thing that remains from my youth, the concrete steps leading up to the front yard. The house was replaced many years ago. After mentally wiping away a symbolic tear, we drove one block north where I took four more pictures from various angles of my parents’ tiny two-bedroom house. It’s pretty much as I remember it, complete with the same rusty TV tower that was attached to the house when I sold it following my mother’s death in 1974. The siding has been upgraded, however, giving the house a fresher look than it had when we owned it.

Following a quick trip through the downtown area where most of the buildings of my youth are either empty or gone, we headed out to Bill and Judy Porter’s beautiful home. Judy had prepared a delicious lunch and we all had a great visit, but as Bill so accurately put it, “It’s hard to catch up on forty years in just two hours.” He was right and I hope we get to see them again real soon.

Following a quick trip to meet Ron Critchlow at the Elnora Post, we headed for the country south of town to visit with my only remaining living relative in Elnora, Marietta McKee. Marietta and I are direct descendants of the Hannah pioneers who founded the town in the early 1800’s, when it was Owl Prairie long before being renamed Elnora. Marietta’s grandfather and my great-grandfather were brothers, making the two of us very distant cousins. Marietta is in remarkably good health and proud of her 92 years on this earth.

Her son, Paul McKee, and his wife, Nadine, were at Marietta’s and we all had a wonderful visit. I showed Marietta the picture I had with me and she confirmed my thoughts that the people in the picture were my great-grandfather William Hannah and his wife Amanda. Also in the picture were my grandparents, Jim and Alice Hannah Rench, their infant firstborn daughter, Audrey, and my grandmother’s brother Curtis Hannah and his wife Myrtle. I knew that my Aunt Audrey was born in January, 1906, so I was able to positively identify the picture as having been taken sometime during that year.

All too soon it was time to head back north to the place I now call home, knowing my real home will forever remain secluded in those vivid memories of so many years ago.