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OPINION: The Hornets of Sucker Flats

July 1, 2021 at 4:30 a.m.

It was in the year 1961 that I spent my first of three summer sabbaticals in the rural and quaint Southwest Missouri town of Noel. I stayed with my grandparents, Floyd and Phoebe, and my great aunt, Rosalyn. Their small house on North King's Highway, just across the street from the baseball field, was built following World War II by my grandfather and my father.

The materials used were scrounged from old military surplus stock and the remains of military buildings at nearby Camp Crowder. The onetime soldier-occupied buildings were no longer needed and there were plenty of doors and windows to be had.

My grandfather viewed the mid-summer holiday celebrated on the fourth of July as a time of increased tourism for the town that lay slumbering alongside the waters of the Elk River. As the town marshal, he also saw the days and nights surrounding the fourth as creating more problems for the town's sole law enforcement officer.

I don't believe that either Phoebe or Rosalyn gave the day much thought, and therein laid my problem. I, like any young boy, wanted to strike a match to some black powder-filled and decorated bits of rolled paper commonly known as fireworks. Maybe my friend Ted and his family were going to shoot some off. I'd walk over and find out.

Ted Davis lived about a mile or so from my grandparents and just off Highway "H," known as the Noel to Pineville road. He had an older brother, Jim, named after his father, and his mother's name was Ethel.

Ted's uncles, his father's two brothers, also lived in Noel. Don Davis owned a Main Street service station where local men stood and talked about the day's events. John owned some property on the banks of Elk River called Wayside Park. There, families camped, paddled canoes and swam in the warm slow-moving water.

I recall Phoebe referring to the area of Noel where Ted lived as "Sucker Flats." As one might expect of an 11-year-old boy, I asked the obvious question, "Why?" "Why what," she replied. "Why is it called "Sucker Flats?" "Well, what would you call a patch of ground that floods?" I guess the silence and the look on my face told her that I hadn't yet gotten the point.

"When those spring rains come each year, that water in Mill Creek is just bustin' to spread its wings and cover every blade of grass down there."

I said nothing.

"You do know what spring rains are don't you?"

I continued to look at Phoebe with what I guess she perceived to be a look of astonishment.

"Oh, I forgot you live in the danged ole desert. Well, it does rain there, doesn't it?"

Again I didn't speak.

"Anyway," although somewhat frustrated, she continued. "In these parts, we have what we call spring rain. We call it that because it comes in the springtime and it generally rains a lot. Those rains and the warmer temperatures let the trees, grass and flowers know it's time to wake up and get to growing.

"Now, that piece of ground there by the creek floods almost every year and most folks think the people foolish enough to buy land and build houses there are suckers. Get it now?"

Again I remained silent.

"You sure do ask a lot of questions."

As I approached the red brick house, I saw Ted in the yard pushing an old wooden-handle reel mower. It was hot and his face showed the effects of the sweltering afternoon. His cheeks were as red as beets.

"Hi Ted," you look pretty hot.

"Yeah, but I'm about done."

I got right to the point. "Are you guys going to shoot off fireworks tonight?"

Before Ted could answer the most important of questions his mother opened the front door.

"Hey Mom, are we gonna do fireworks tonight?"

I acted disinterested in the question and forthcoming answer but if the truth were to be known, I was very interested. I knew my grandfather would be working and Phoebe and Rosalyn didn't strike me as the lighting of bottle rockets types.

"No, your father told me he wasn't gonna get any."

Ted began asking the next question before his mother finished her sentence. "What about Jim. Is he gonna get some?"

"No, Jim is going out with his friends."

Well, I thought, that did it. There would be no fireworks for me that year. However, "au contraire mon ami." I was mistaken.

It was then that Ted revealed an alternate plan.

"Mom, I have some firecrackers. Can we shoot them off? I'm done with the mowing."

I guess that Ted could see that his mother was giving the request some thought so he threw in the clincher. "We'll be real careful."

"OK, but you two go down by the creek and be real careful."

It was a short walk to Mill Creek and it seemed that the hot rain-deprived July days had sucked much of the water from the stream. We stopped in the shade of a tree, then Ted reached into a shorts pocket and removed three strings of Flying Fairy Brand Rocket Firecrackers. I vividly remember a picture of a rocket ship with flames on each package.

"Here," he said as he handed me one string of the explosives and a small book of matches.

Not being overly familiar with the lighting procedure, I struck a match and lit the fuse attached to three or four.

"Throw em," he yelled, but it was too late. Just as I released them, they detonated and, let me tell you, those sons of a gun detonated all over my hand. You know, it hurt like the dickens. "C'mon, let my mom take a look at it."

"I told you to be real careful. Now, see what happened. I'll bet you're sorry you didn't listen to me."

As most 11-year-old boys would likely attest, those words were all too familiar. Ted's mother spouted them out as though they were written on the back of her hand and yes, I was sorry. She gently took my hand, walked me to the refrigerator and removed a small container of butter.

"This will help a little," she said as she spread the slippery goo on my hand.

I walked to my grandparent's house all the while shaking that damaged hand, and wondered how long that pain would last. The stinging in my hand felt like a hundred angry hornets were trapped in there. I remember that Phoebe took my hand, walked me over to the refrigerator and, well you may have guessed it, spread butter all over the throbbing appendage.

Phoebe, and as she spread the cold butter with her fingers asked how it happened. After hearing the squeaky-voiced description of the accident she said, "I'll bet you're sorry you didn't listen to Ethel, now, aren't you?" Sorry? indeed I was.

Well, the angry hornets eventually left my hand and the hot mid-summer days soon passed into the late summer days of August. I continued to hang out with Ted, play baseball and swing from the rope that overhung the waters at Shadow Lake.

Finally, and although I knew the day was sure to come, I had to say goodbye to Phoebe, Rosalyn and my grandfather. Phoebe hugged me as the Greyhound Bus driver called for everyone to get inside.

"Now you be good and come back and see us, you hear and don't forget, be careful around those dad-burned firecrackers."

"I will. Goodbye Phoebe."

Ted and his family later moved to Pomme de Terre, Mo., and I'm told the Davis Family never again lived in Noel. I never saw Ted again but, years later, I was told that he married a lovely woman named Karen.

Ethel Davis, the great believer in the healing powers of butter, was quite a lady. She loved to sing and taught herself to play the piano. Ethel Mae Davis passed away in 2020 at the ripe old age of 93.

I remember Phoebe as an elderly woman of robust stature and one who was not blessed with infinite patience. However, although she occasionally lacked the virtue of patience, she more than made up for that shortcoming with the virtues of kindness and love, both of which she gave to me. Phoebe died in 1973 at the age of 72.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Print Headline: The Hornets of Sucker Flats

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