Jesse James—Robin Hood or Rogue Criminal?

The History Channel recently reported the anniversary of Jesse James’s birth in Clay County, Missouri, where I now live. Jesse was born on September 5, 1847. I’ve done a lot of research about 1847 for my novels, examining locations from Missouri to Oregon, but I hadn’t encountered any reference to Jesse’s birth before.

Of course, as an infant Jesse James didn’t have any impact on the Oregon Trail emigrants. But as an adult, he had a huge impact on history in Missouri and Kansas, and indeed throughout the United States.

I’d heard of Jesse James growing up, but I thought of him as an outlaw. I had no idea he had a cult following until I moved to Missouri. About thirty years ago, not too long after my husband and I moved to Clay County, we toured the Jesse James farm. It was like touring Mount Vernon or Monticello—the tour guides raved about how wonderful Jesse was.

Come on! This guy robbed banks. He killed people. He was the 19th Century equivalent of a Mafia gangster.

Modern day psychologists and social workers might excuse Jesse because his father abandoned the family when he was two. Or because his stepfather abused him. Or because while still a teenager, he joined the Missouri guerrillas during the early years of the Civil War, becoming one of the pro-Confederate bushwhackers in the Little Dixie region of Missouri.

But in my opinion, his difficult upbringing does not excuse Jesse’s adult history. In the years after the Civil War, Jesse and his gang robbed many banks and also held up stagecoaches and trains. These crimes not only deprived honest citizens of their hard-earned cash but also maimed and killed many innocent bystanders.

Jesse died as violently as he lived. In April 1882, when he was only 34, Jesse was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford, another member of his gang, while Jesse was living in St. Joseph, Missouri. After his death, his mother put a tombstone marking Jesse’s grave that read: “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.”

Jesse may have been murdered by a traitor and coward, but his life did not merit the exalted praise I heard during my tour of his farm many years ago. He was no Robin Hood, as many Hollywood screenwriters and dime novelists depicted him. This hero worship began while he was still alive and continues to this day.

Jesse’s family’s farm has been owned by Clay County, Missouri, since 1974, and the County now operates it as a historical site. The farm is still open for tours, much as it was when my husband and I went there about thirty years ago. A non-profit organization called Friends of the James Farm raises funds to preserve the farm and to promote the study of the Border War in the Civil War era. There is also an annual Jesse James Festival in Kearney, Missouri.

In addition, the house where Jesse was killed in St. Joseph, Missouri, is open for tours. I’ve been there also, and the tour guides recount the details of Jesse’s death, to the point of showing the picture he was straightening at the moment he was shot.

But people opposed to the hero worship of Jesse James have their own festival also. Each September since 1948, the town of Northfield, Minnesota, has sponsored “Defeat of Jesse James Days” to honor their citizens who overcame the James-Younger gang in September 1876.

What heroes or anti-heroes of history surprise you?

Another Treasure: “Brought a Girl Home to Mother”

My last post contained some pictures I found as “treasures” from my cleaning projects. This post is about another treasure—a postcard my husband sent his great-aunt after our first trip together to Missouri, my first trip ever to Missouri.

Postcard purchased at Fort Osage in June 1977

I’ve written about this visit before, the first time I met my future in-laws—in early June 1977, almost exactly forty years ago. My not-yet-declared fiancé and I traveled to Fort Osage and bought gooseberries, then my not-yet-mother-in-law and I made gooseberry pie. Soon-to-be-fiancé chopped up a stump in the backyard for his parents—that picture I have tucked away in an album.

After chopping the stump

I always assumed the visit went well enough, since we did later get engaged and were married over Thanksgiving year of that weekend—forty years ago this November. But until his great-aunt returned this postcard to us, I didn’t really know.

Shortly after the visit ended, future hubby wrote:

I never used the ax, just posed with it

“Brought a girl home to Mother this trip—one I’d like to keep. She seems agreeable (the girl, that is, though I think Mother too approves.) But I’m old enough not to hold my breath. I’ll believe it when and if the deed is done. . . .”

(I assume by “the deed” he meant getting married; I haven’t asked him for clarification.)

I know I read the postcard when his aunt gave it to us, but then I stashed it in my cupboard. Until I cleaned that cupboard earlier this year, it might as well have been lost. I’m glad I found this treasure.

What treasures from your courtship do you have?

Ashes to Ashes: Requiem for a Tree

We moved into our brand new house on a block of other brand new houses in October 1984. Within a few weeks after we moved in, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, planted trees in the parkway up and down our street.

My husband and I were both at work the day that the trees were planted. That evening our next door neighbor came over to make sure we knew that he had selected the best trees the city had on its truck for his house and ours.

The tree in the parkway in front of our house was an ash tree. Ours grew to be the biggest ash on the street—even bigger than our neighbor’s, though I bet he had taken the best tree for his lot and given us second best. I certainly didn’t mind—we had a fine tree.

I believe the reason our tree grew to be so tall and strong was that my husband fertilized it regularly in the years before we hired TruGreen Chem Lawn to care for our trees and shrubs. My husband carried buckets of water mixed with carefully measured tree food down to the curb every few weeks through the growing season. It may have been a city-owned tree, but we provided its care for decades.

house w trees marked

The ash tree in the parkway overshadows our house and the magnolia

Soon the tree provided shade to the west side of our two-story house. In the three seasons of the year when the ash tree had leaves, the foliage grew so thick I could not see the houses across the street from my second-story office window.

ash tree canopy marked

The ash tree canopy spread from the street to our house.

emerald ash borerUnfortunately, the Midwest has been hit by the emerald ash borer, a beetle native to Asia that destroys North American ash trees. The larvae chew through the bark and disrupt the tree’s ability to transport nutrients and water. About two years ago, the city tagged our ash tree and all the others up and down the street. The trees were treated, but the treatments do not always stave off the bugs.

In November of this year, a large slab of bark fell off our ash tree. I don’t know if the emerald ash borer had attacked the tree or not, but we worried about the health of the tree. So we contacted the city. After a couple of weeks, they sent a crew to inspect it. Their remedy—they would cut down the tree.

On Saturday, December 5, a contractor’s truck showed up, and they sawed away at our ash. Chainsaws roaring, first they sawed off the small branches on top, then the larger limbs, and finally the trunk, until all that remained of our lovely ash was a pile of sawdust.

House without the ash tree

House without the ash

All that's left of our ash tree

All that’s left of our ash tree

The city says they will plant another tree. But we don’t know when. And we don’t know what. And it will be years before the shade of any new tree will be of benefit to the west side of our home. We probably won’t live in this house by the time the shade reaches the second story windows.

Perhaps the only benefit of losing the ash will be that the magnolia tree, which I also love and which grew in the shadow of the ash, can now receive more sun, spread its branches, and bloom more brightly.

What plants have you lost that you loved?

Google Alert on the Oregon Trail: The Small Pleasures of Being a Writer

I have set up a Google Alert for references to “Oregon Trail.” Every week in my email inbox, I get a list of internet articles referencing the Oregon Trail. My purpose in setting up the alert was to keep up on what is happening along the trail.

Most of what shows up in the Google Alert doesn’t help my writing or my marketing at all. Most articles relate to local events in Oregon, or to people writing about the old Oregon Trail computer game. (Remember? The game in which one player always died of dysentery. Well, that did happen to many emigrants.)

But last week, I was surprised to open my Google Alert to see a picture of the Lead Me Home cover!

Google alert LMH

And a very nice article in The Marshall Democrat-News, the local newspaper in Marshall, Missouri.

Marshall Dem News LMH

I am doing a reading and book signing at the Marshall Public Library on Thursday, December 10, 2015, and I knew the library was preparing a press release. But I was still surprised to see the article in the local Marshall newspaper.

Being famous for a day is one of the small pleasures of being a writer.

Another is going off to run errands for an afternoon, and coming back to check your book statistics to see that two—or maybe even three!—people somewhere in the U.S. bought your book.

A third small pleasure is having your friends and family—and sometimes mere acquaintances—tell you they loved your book. And they want you to get the sequel done right away. (Well, maybe this last bit isn’t a pleasure, because I know how much work lies ahead to get the sequel ready.)

I suppose John Grisham and Larry McMurtry are past those small pleasures. But for just-published authors, it’s still fun.

I hope any readers in or near Marshall, Missouri, will come to the reading on Thursday. It’s at 6:00pm.

No one will die of dysentery in the selection I read.

Sounds of Cicadas

Many memories are triggered by milestone anniversaries—things that happened five or ten or twenty-five years ago. But this memory of mine returned because of a seventeen-year anniversary. The seventeen-year cicadas are back this summer. It’s been so rainy that I haven’t been outside to hear them much, but the news reports bring to mind memories of a long-ago summer nonetheless.

I had never encountered cicadas until I moved to Missouri. Like fireflies, cicadas were foreign to the desert of Eastern Washington. During my first summer in Missouri, I asked my husband, “What is that noise?” He explained it was bugs. I don’t fear insects the way I do spiders, but it still dismayed me that my summertime pleasure could be disrupted by an ear-piercing drone that made conversation difficult.

Seventeen years ago—in June 1998—our family was preparing to hike in the Alps. “We need to take a practice hike,” my husband said. “To break in your boots and be sure you’ll make it.” He didn’t have much confidence in my fitness, which was probably wise.

So he, our daughter, and I set aside a Saturday that month to take a hike near Lake Perry in Kansas. Kansas, as most people know, is flat. But it was the best we could do to prepare for our mountain hike. Our son was also coming on this trip, but he had other plans that Saturday. “He’s on his own,” my husband said. Our son had taken plenty of Boy Scout hikes, so at least he had more experience than I did.

Me, after the first day of hiking in Switzerland

Me, after the first day of hiking in Switzerland

We put on our boots and set out on the trail, but were deafened by the sound of cicadas. That year, not only were the seventeen-year cicadas out, but a bumper crop of the thirteen-year variety also. We couldn’t talk, and we crunched the insect carcasses under our new boots as we walked.

I survived the practice hike (there was never any doubt about my husband or daughter), and a couple of weeks later our family set out for Switzerland. I’ve written before about that trip.

Now, seventeen years later, I reflect on how much our family has changed. Our son has finished high-school and college. Since college, he has lived and worked in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, then cycled through all three cities again (he just moved back to New York).

Our daughter went through high school, college, and law school, taking up crew along the way. She has been a lawyer in Washington State for five years now, and owns a house and a dog.

My husband and I have both retired. We are forging this new phase in our lives, filling our days with both joys and sorrows as we age.

But when I hear the cicadas, I return to that summer of 1998, when our children were still living at home—no longer dependent, but not yet independent either. The house was full, our lives were hectic, and the four of us seldom all headed in the same direction.

That week in Switzerland was an opportunity to build memories together. I treasure my memories of that week, and I hope the rest of the family does also. The noise of the cicadas this summer triggers my memories. And the memories fill the silence of our empty nest.

What sounds trigger memories for you?

Time Is Ticking

I wrote a few weeks ago about preparing for the bar exam. I revealed in that post that my husband and I both passed, but I didn’t write about the difficulty of the exam itself.

In the summer of 1979, the Missouri Bar held the bar exam for aspiring lawyers in the state capital, Jefferson City, at the Ramada Inn. Candidates from all over the state converged on this town that had about 33,000 residents at the time (not counting politicians).

Most of the bar exam takers stayed at the Ramada, but my husband wanted to be able to get away from the craziness of hyperactive lawyer wannabes pumped on caffeine. So we stayed at the Best Western a few blocks away.

On the first morning of the exam, we drove the short distance to the Ramada Inn and found the huge bank of conference rooms where the test would be conducted. One room was for typists, and the others were for those of us who would write their answers in long hand. (Today, almost everyone takes the exam on laptops, but such devices didn’t exist in 1979.)

The room looked something like this. But no laptops.

The room looked something like this. But no laptops.

Each candidate was assigned a specific seat, two candidates to a table in a room filled with rows of tables. The test-takers were arranged alphabetically. Because my husband and I have the same last name, we were seated next to each other. Thankfully, there was an aisle between us, so we didn’t have to share a table. If we had, I think I would have worried about him as much as about the test questions.

We had stacks of blue books (remember blue books?) in which to write our answers. Everyone aligned their pens and blue books and water bottles, fidgeting and fussing with nervous energy, until time to start the test.

My husband has never worn a watch, while I always wear one set five minutes ahead of the actual time. But for purposes of tracking how long to spend on each question, my husband had with him a small alarm clock, which he set in front of him on the table, along with pens and blue books.

Palpable anxiety filled the room, in sighs and groans and squeaking of chairs.

At the appointed time, the first set of questions was distributed.

We wrote.

And we wrote.

Monitoring the minutes as they passed, to be sure we saved enough time to answer all the questions.

alarm-clock-ringing-6-cf8bumoxAbout two-thirds of the way through that first time block, the alarm on my husband’s clock rang. Loudly.

I looked up in astonishment. It wasn’t time yet, was it? Others in the room groaned, and the tension in the room grew twenty-fold.

Across the aisle from me, my husband fumbled quickly to silence the alarm.

“It was an accident,” he later told me. “I didn’t set the alarm. I swear.”

I didn’t know whether to believe him.

Oh, well. We both passed, so no harm done.

When has the unexpected made you more stressed in life?

Sailing Along


Image from Sailboats To Go

A few years after we moved to Kansas City, my husband bought a sailing canoe. You have probably never seen a sailing canoe—they are rare, for good reason.

A sailing canoe is a regular canoe to which a mast and a keel can be attached. Ours looked something like this picture, though the canoe was yellow and the sail plain white.

But as a sailing vessel, it is a compromise. The keel is not weighted, so the boat sits light on the water, leans easily and is therefore swamped with little notice. The mast makes the boat top-heavy, further increasing the chances of capsizing.

My husband, a lover of both canoeing and sailing, thought our boat was the neatest thing since sliced bread. He had always wanted a canoe and a sail boat, and now he had both.

Shortly after he purchased the canoe, he figured out how to mount the mast and sail. Then the two of us headed for the closest county lake one sweltering summer day in Missouri.

We spread all the pieces out on the beach and finally got the sail on the boat, ready for its maiden voyage.

“You’d better stay here,” my husband told me. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Well, he was right. I’m not an experienced sailor. But I didn’t think it was very nice of him to point it out.

Still, in the interest of marital harmony, I kept my mouth shut, and pushed him out to sea, so he could try it out on his own.

He sailed out into the middle of the lake, tacked a couple of times, and then the boat tipped over.

There my sailor was—a Naval Academy graduate, no less—his vessel upside down, mast dragging into the mud at the bottom of the lake. He dove under the boat, freed the sail and mast so they floated beside his swamped canoe, and wondered what to do next.

After some time, a motor boat came along and towed him back to shore, where I waited patiently, sipping lemonade to combat the heat and humidity of a Missouri summer afternoon.

We packed up the pieces and headed home.

It is a tribute to my good sense that I never told him he didn’t know what he was doing any more than I did. (Until now.)

We took the sailing canoe out on future trips, and managed to keep it upright, though we also swamped it again several times. It was never a good family boat, because only two people could sit in it comfortably. And “comfortably” was a specious description, because you had to sit in the bottom of the boat, which always had a little water in it, making for a damp seat.

Ultimately, when my husband took up rowing and bought a single scull, he sold the sailing canoe. He has swamped the scull also, but that’s another story. And at least the scull is a single, so I don’t have to participate.

What activities have you endured for the sake of a spouse or friend?