The dogs pulled me along the street as I approached Camp Grover.
Russell Frank was working the southwest corner, waving his metal detector over clay and brown dirt, poking a spade into the earth from time to time before glancing over at me.
“Hey, who’s walking who?” Russell said in greeting.
At that moment, it had been seven months since I first interviewed him. Prior to that interview, I had passed by Russell dozens of times as he and a couple other guys worked their metal detectors through this lot next to the old cemetery along Gay Street. He calls it dirt fishing.
Curiosity finally kicked in. One day in October, I went back to find out what was going on.
I found Russell working under the shade of an old cedar tree. A camouflage bandana covered his head, shoulder straps supported his equipment and several tools were strapped to his waist. A hand-forged Mjölnir pendant hung from his neck, occasionally catching the shade from a respectable salt-and-pepper beard.
Various rusty artifacts, from square nails to large unrecognizable hunks of metal, were scattered along the tailgate of his truck, which was parked near a dump truck filled with brush. The construction crew was off that day, but their presence was evident all around us. The ground was being methodically cleared, stripped and lowered several feet to make way for new houses.
“So, what’s going on?” I asked, walking up to him on that clear afternoon.
Russell reached into a pouch and produced a .58-caliber bullet with what appeared to be bite marks gouged into its surface.
I have lived in Old Town for some 20 years now. I never knew that two blocks away, this once gorgeous elevated lot was part of a Union army camp during the Civil War. I learned from the curator of the Johnson County Historical Society, Lisa Irle, that the camp possibly extended to Cave Hollow Park from its headquarters on the Old Town square along Main Street.
The camp’s name comes from Col. Benjamin Grover – respected Johnson County sheriff, state senator, and railroad champion who helped bring the rail line through Johnson County and who died from wounds he suffered in the battle of Lexington.
Russell thinks an injured soldier may have bitten down on that bullet he found as the soldier was being treated in the field. As an army encampment, many soldiers and supply runs came and went from this area. The dirt fishers know this, and they know the ground potentially holds many things that could serve as historical reminders today.
So, as the developer prepared the lot for new homes, Russell and a few others came fishing.
“As they layer it down, hopefully we’ll find something good,” Russell said.
The day I interviewed him, Russell had found the bullet, an eagle cuff button and a thin, round metal condom container with the name “3 Merry Widows” pressed into the lid. It was certainly one of the more interesting non-period finds.
“Oh snap guess who just made it to the Merry Widows club,” he posted on his Facebook page.
Seven months later, when I wandered up to Russell at the former Union camp, three homes were under construction. Still, he returns. Probably because he’s found a lot more stuff:
- Suspender buckles
- Horse tack
- A chunk of brass, possibly part of the bell from the Presbyterian church that burned down on the property
- Horse or mule shoes, ax heads and miscellaneous iron from the Cave Hollow park area
- .58 caliber mini balls called three ringers
- Pistol balls and buckshot (some chewed by people and animals)
- Union eagle coat and cuff buttons and some civilian buttons.
Russell was originally from Kansas City, Mo., spent 26 years in the military, moved to Warrensburg in 1998 and retired in 2011. Now he spends quite a bit of time listening for the telltale pings through headphones, finding artifacts, lost rings and other treasures.
I’m glad I ran into him again. I had put aside this story, but now my interest was renewed. He’s interesting to talk to, especially when he’s talking about the things that interest him – using electrolysis to clean artifacts, the recent scarcity of display cases and that cool Mjölnir pendant from White Hart Forge and their Mjölnir Project for military service members.
Maybe my interest was renewed because his care for local history is made tangible through these bits of rusted history.
Too much of our local history is being erased. The house at Selmo Park, where university presidents had made their home for nearly 150 years, was demolished in March. The former segregated Howard School across from Blind Boone Park crumbled last winter. And new cookie-cutter duplexes are being built throughout Old Town on top of ground Russell would like more time to search before being disturbed. The new construction is certainly better than the saggy, moldy, dilapidated houses the duplexes replaced. But there’s no appeal in these generic homes that I assume will mostly be temporary housing for airmen and college students.
So, it’s inspiring to see people like Russell out there working to remember and preserve our local history. As a member of the Johnson County Historical Society, he said he is putting together a display for the society with bullets, suspender buckles and buttons.
He’s already pulled in a decent haul, but he’s pushing on for as long as he can.
“I will be hitting every place that is kind enough to let me in to save some history,” Russell said. “The two places I’m working now, the contractors are outstanding folks and understand what me and a few others are trying to do. So, for how long I don’t have an exact timeframe but at the pace things are moving – a year at the most…maybe.”
They circle and there’s sound.
Turmoil in the trees and grace over water,
Pinions bend inches from the surface.
And the redheads scream and chase,
As we scuttle the grass and giggle and cry.
They swirl and we drink.
Echoes of flight in mist that consumes,
We watch the ground, breathless and unaware.
And the redheads drill and scream,
As we snag the limbs and pop the lines.
They drift and then vanish.
Stilt walking, yellow-footed in the shallow,
There’s reclamation when no one’s around.
And the redheads scream and dive,
As we crunch the gravel and stir the dust.
Sit down, open a vein, and a couple hours later walk out with a 20- or 30-page novella that a panel of thoughtful experts will comb through to judge your scholarly worth.
At least that’s how an academically weary doctoral student described the comprehensive exam experience as we sat in a classroom one floor above the watchful bust of Walter Williams.
Stuff your brain with research data, compile a stack of notecards with names, theories and facts connected to whatever it is you’ve spent the last few years keyword searching in academic journals. And then unleash it.
Of all the heady stuff that bounced around the room during that methods class, the thing that sticks with me the most is the anxiety we get to enjoy while anticipating comps.
Now, I sit 95 miles from the stony gaze of Mr. Williams, and I open a vein. Not to expel exam anxieties or anxieties about methods courses and doctoral seminars to come. No, something happened at the end of my summer break – something that compelled me back to this column after almost a year.
My wife and I reconnected with some old friends on the outskirts of tourist-choked Branson. Just being around them reminded me how satisfying it is to make art.
For me, writing is like sculpting. You mold paragraphs, chisel away flabby passages, delete words and add back what you hope is good stuff.
Anyway, Jenny and Olof Pierson are two working class artists who make you want to get creative. You look around at all of the good work they’ve done and you wonder what the heck you are waiting for. When they aren’t making art or helping others make art, the Piersons are building or remodeling or being cool parents of really creative children.
After we left, I thought of all the excuses I made for not writing anything besides academic papers, grocery lists and sticky notes to myself. Well, there’s no excuse for inaction. If you are not working on something creative, you are simply existing. And that’s not living.
This summer, we certainly lived it up. But we needed a change of pace after a few days of living next to the unblinking stare of a giant chicken that guards the entrance to a family restaurant, illuminated by the billboards and theaters for Baldknobbers and countless other comedic and country gospel singing sensations.
So, we found a nice pebble beach, swam in cool, clear water and then found our friends and met a few new ones.
Branson is fine, but on the other side of the tracks is this peaceful little place called Kimberling City. You can breathe there and look out at Table Rock Lake and not wonder when you will be able to make that left turn so you can make it to the show on time.
And Jenny and Olof brave Silver Dollar City traffic to call that peaceful little place home. Back in Branson, they ponder the future of public art from their new gallery, RockBottom Studios, next door to a massive outdoor shopping mall called the Landing where a fountain synchs fire and water to “Moondance” as fog rolls off the frigid waters of Lake Taneycomo.
In the meantime, they contemplate ways to lure anyone who appreciates art to the cool basement space they remodeled into an art gallery and social club. Their kids and skateboarders and other folks from the community paint and congregate in the main gallery surrounded by serious, some seriously expensive and some seriously inexpensive, original artwork.
So, here I am 160 miles from Kimberling City, wondering what’s new at RockBottom Studios, creating something new during the last weekend before classes begin.
I’m still getting used to the overwhelming feeling of meeting new students, reuniting with old students, hearing their success stories and having my heart broken by watching others drift away.
Art is an anxiety killer. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience a touch of it while making this, but who cares? That’s just part of the process.
Let’s make stuff.
It’s that time of year when you start to see all of those “year-in-review” stories on the front page of the newspaper.
Most small town papers do it because recapping the year fills space. Remembering the “big news” of the year, we’re reminded of the highs and lows, of tragedy and victory.
And you can insert your own cliché here.
Like I said, rerunning stories fills space. That’s all it does. There’s no other reason for it.
The readers are none the wiser or richer. Our community doesn’t rally behind old news. Those stories, if they are reread at all, don’t make us feel anything. They don’t inspire action, outrage or satisfaction.
The blocks of words are just cold column inches.
But the folks who put the paper together (and I’ve been there) will justify this tradition by telling you this is a slow time of the year for news. There isn’t much on the council’s agenda. The boards are wishing one another happy holidays. The budgets are behind us. Winter break is upon us at the university, and public schools are about to let out.
The news is yawning and ready for a nap.
I always thought that was such a load of crap.
There are stories all around us, stories that will never be told because we’re too busy recapping, rehashing and reliving.
Instead of digging into the top stories of the year and working on follow-up stories, it’s easier to treat stories like sentences – something that ends with a period.
But the stories we write never have a clear beginning or ending. We try to find a logical place to begin so the reader understands where we’re going, and then we try to end gracefully if possible.
But the people in the story do not become frozen in time after we punctuate the last sentence in the story.
William Woo said journalism is a public trust. It’s more than simply being in the information business and it’s more than supplying the news. It’s certainly more than just filling space.
The public trust is served when we tell our stories and when we tell it plainly.
The public trust is served when we continue to ask questions and tell the story that lies beneath the surface.
The public trust is served when we write about the poor and the homeless throughout the year and not just during the holidays.
Let’s talk about health care navigators and people buying health insurance. We can talk about a clunky piece of legislation, but it’s high time to talk about what we can do about it.
Let’s talk about crime and the work of law enforcement — the positive and the negative. Let’s talk about safety and defending yourselves.
I’m not saying we should never look back. Journalists should always look back. When we do, we should do it because we’re telling another story about where we’re going.
I teach young men and women how to be journalists.
It’s a strange thing for me to think about because it’s not something I ever wanted to do.
I just wanted to report and write.
But things change. And here I am, telling young men and women to snap out of this inverted pyramid sleepwalk.
But let me back up a minute. A speaker at a recent Associated Press conference addressed a room full of pros about how to write enterprise stories.
Jack Lessenberry admonished us to put people first.
“Unless you want to start working for a living,” he said.
Indeed. People first.
You hear that? Unless you want to start working for a living, how about we look at the world like a person?
It’s funny how we have to constantly remind ourselves about this simple fact.
The stories we write, the tales we tell, each one touches a person in some fashion. So, how about this? Instead of running the news release and moving on, let’s take a closer look.
Last April, for example, our student publication received a news release from the police that officers shot and killed a man named Beau Appleton as they served a search warrant on his home.
There were few details because the investigation was ongoing, both regarding the original case and into the shooting.
Months passed, but I refused to allow our student reporters to let the story die.
What happened? What did the police find?
Today, the efforts of our Sunshine Law requests for reports paid off and we published more details about the raid.
Police kicked in his door, tossed flashbang grenades inside and entered. Beau shot at the police with a double-barreled shotgun and the police shot him dead. His wife was on a bed between him and the police. His two teenaged daughters were in adjacent rooms.
Apparently they found a little baggie of pot.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions. Will our readers ever get to know who this guy was as a person? Or will they only know him as the guy on the east side of town where the houses are small and unadorned as the person who shot at police after they broke down his front door?
Will we ever know why the police chose this tactic while the man’s family was home? Can a person hear someone yelling at them to put their gun down after experiencing a flashbang grenade?
It begs the question, wouldn’t it seem probable that a suspected drug dealer who is known to have guns would shoot at someone who breaks down his front door?
Drug dealers tend to deal with scallywags who are known to break into places to steal things like other people’s drugs, money and guns.
How and why the police decided to do what they did is irrelevant now. Obviously they had their reasons.
We should trust the police. We should be able to trust people in authority.
But journalists must hold them accountable. It’s a harrowing task to question authority, but it’s an important job.
Believe it or not, it takes hard work and persistence to find the truth or at least a clearer picture that lurks behind a sterile, impersonal news release.
Put people first.
The president’s team shook the trees and Warrensburg plopped to the ground.
“I’ve asked my team to shake the trees all across the country for some of the best ideas out there for keeping college costs down, so that as students prepare to go back to school I’m in a position to lay out what is going to be an aggressive strategy to shake up the system to make sure that middle class students, working class students, poor kids who have the drive and wherewithal and want to get a good college education, they can get it without basically mortgaging their entire future,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday to a crowd of – well I understand 1,400 tickets were given away – people in a UCM gymnasium where the mercury must have topped 90 degrees.
And so, after all the shaking came the planning as White House staffers called newsrooms with a detailed agenda:
“Hey, the president wants to visit the university in Warrensburg.”
“OK, how come?” says the editor.
“Something about the economy.”
“Sounds good. Hey, Sally, go cover the president at the university in Warrensburg.”
“Warrensburg. You know, they got that dog on the courthouse lawn.”
“Oh, sure, sure. What’s the topic?”
“Something about the economy.”
The patriotic bunting was unfurled on porch railings. Flags and flag-decorated balloons lined Holden and Pine streets. The Highway Patrol locked down DD Highway, and just about every piece of heavy machinery from Warrensburg public works blocked the sidewalks into the campus quad.
A voracious line of nine, wait, 16…hang on, someone said more showed up later…protestors queued up along the “free speech zone” by the amphitheater along Holden Street.
A man dressed in a black T-shirt with the word “Infidel” below some Arabic writing walked around carrying a sign that said “Illegal Prez,” or was it the sign that said “Egypt Got it Right.” No, I think it was the sign that said “Impeach Obama.”
I asked the guy who held aloft the “Egypt Got it Right” sign how Egypt got it right. He said they overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government.
“So, you think we should resort to violence?” I asked.
But he insisted that we must overthrow our elected leader.
I asked him how it’s going in Egypt.
“It’s unstable,” he said.
But Egypt got it right.
Who wants a president who can fly into town, complain about an obstructionist Congress and then lay out a nebulous plan that targets our children?
He actually thinks it’s OK that the university allows a public school district to train youngsters in high-tech gadgetry, get an internship at a high-tech firm and use that money to pay for a bachelor’s degree in two years.
Health insurance! Whatever Obama! I eat dirt like all good Americans. It’s full of minerals and that healthy bacteria stuff.
“But we have to get back our focus on what’s important,” Mr. Obama said. “An endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals can’t get in the way of what we need to do.”
Nothing phony about that IRS scandal. Some guy in a trucker hat with a deer inside crosshairs that says “The buck stops here” told me you ordered that scandal.
And you think helping kids get a high-tech education is what’s important? Hey, we got the vo-tech. Leave that electronic wizardry to the Yu-Gi-Oh losers at the comic book shop.
“I’m not going to allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in this country’s way,” he said. “Where I can act on my own, I’m going to. I’m not going to wait for Congress.”
Whoa there! You mean as hard as the Republicans try to block, you think you can still do stuff?
Invest in education. Invest in manufacturing. Invest in science and research. Invest in transportation. Invest in information systems.
Great, more spending.
Let the bridges fall. That creates jobs right there.
You just wait, buster. Pretty soon I’m going to coin another catchy slogan to snub you but good.
“If you think education is expensive, you should see how much ignorance is going to cost in the 21st century.”
Hey, what? Wait a second.
It’s not the sexiest display, and it has little direct relation to the museum’s namesake, Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Ernie Pyle, the Soldiers’ Reporter, has his own place inside the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan.
I once had a crusty editor at the newspaper where I worked who bristled at stories filled with “the usual suspects.” It was infuriating for him to read the stilted government-speak of these talking heads.
“Goddammit, talk to some real people,” he’d say.
That’s a lesson I carry over to my students – tell readers what regular people are doing. Tell us how they feel and how they are affected.
That’s what Ernie Pyle did. He cared little for the generals, the officers, the diplomats, the presidents and the prime ministers.
He traveled with the soldiers, dodged the same bullets and told their stories. So, maybe that’s where he fits into this museum dedicated to one of the world’s greatest talking heads.
Ernie Pyle was there to experience the decisions made by generals and presidents and prime ministers.
One of the two panels reprinted a column that Pyle wrote about soldiers mourning the loss of an officer while fighting in Italy. He won a Pulitzer Prize for these columns.
This is a well-known column about the death of Captain Waskow, which the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Ind., and the Scripps Howard Foundation make available for reprinting from time to time. It’s plainly written and stark, yet there’s this sensitivity that permeates the whole column.
“Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:
“I sure am sorry, sir.”
We didn’t plan this trip to the Eisenhower library and museum on Sunday. It just sort of happened. And I’m glad we went. Experiencing a piece of Ernie Pyle outside of a textbook and classroom was quite thrilling.
And experiencing Eisenhower in the same fashion was just as exciting. As we made our way into a modest theater to view a historical film about Ike, I couldn’t help but reflect how fitting our visit was on the eve of Memorial Day.
What an excellent way to honor the day.
We all need these historical reminders. Ike was an interesting man – the kind of Republican anyone could get behind. He was truly a forward thinker, a global leader and a remarkable ambassador for peace.
Ike may have ripped off R. Buckminster Fuller in his April 16, 1953 address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors when he said:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry.” – R. Buckminster Fuller