Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 58




Some years have passed productively.  Rebecca is growing and in school.  I’m out of school for a time, deciding where to go next with my summa cum laude B.A. in History, minor in English Composition.  Perhaps Northwestern for a Journalism Masters.  I was allowed another independent study, first semester of my Senior year, consisting of driving all around our end of Fulton County and Eddie’s end of Schuyler, staying lost much of the time until Mama bought me a GPS, stopping wherever an older person lived, letting them fuss over Rebecca while they told me all their family history, history of the farm and the local church and the stories about the exceptional children raised there, both good and bad; the accidents and triumphs and disappointments of what could have been a very ordinary place.  It was anything but.  Thank goodness for digital recorders and voice transcribers….


I tried to ask a few subtle questions about the Brinley family as I went along.  Slowly, slowly, I managed to compile a complete genealogy chart going back to the early 1900’s.  Interestingly, for your future reference, Percy Brinley and his only brother, Buddy’s father, had only one child between them, Buddy.  Their two farms combined for about 1280 acres, more or less, worth at least 2.5 million.  Buddy's father and mother continue to farm and manage even more than the 1280 acres, and aren't nearly ready to retire.  Mama does not do their taxes.   No, I haven’t decided if I want to.  Really.  Please, REALLY.


Sixty four years after the army doctor told Charley Poole to go home and straighten out his accounts, he crushed six hills  of bush beans having a fatal heart attack  while mowing weeds around his vegetable garden.  Contrary to my usual rule, I went to his funeral, growing more and more frustrated as the people talking about Charley didn’t seem to really know him.  So, I stood up and told everyone how Charley and I had spent part of a summer together and how he taught me to duck and cover while screaming.   I told them how he felt about Jerry Vencil’s death and how God had treated Jerry's old dog.  I told them his idea of heaven would have been sitting around a little fire with all his friends, listening to their tireless hounds run a fox who never quit.  I told them even if Charley Poole was never rich, his family was never hungry.  I told them  Charley was a good Christian man who would have been one of the best men I ever met, even if he had been a heathen!  I heard a lot of “Amens” from the crowd  and shook  a lot of hands afterward.  When his widow and I met, she winked at me and murmured "He never told me about that!".  She lives, now, with a daughter in Peoria after selling off everything she couldn't use.   I don't know what happened to the boat...or the goat....?


One night, two wild friends and I decided  to get a close view of the strip mine shovel near Fairview.   We saw, like the glow from a big city, the lights in the pit, and from a great distance saw the teeth of the shovel thrust up through the field to get a full bite of the overburden.  The shovel carried the rich 6 feet of topsoil away to become nothing but a part of a huge mound of subsoil not fit to even raise weeds.   Lightning bugs scattered around us as we walked through the fallow field, closer and closer, ready to run as soon as anyone spotted us, the teeth getting bigger and bigger. Alien sounds became more and more monstrous, the lights sweeping back and forth as the shovel scooped up a load, rotated and dropped it in the spoils pile.  The ground beneath our feet vibrated to a very low frequency harmonic.  The pit, like something from “War of the Worlds”, was a fire of activity in a surrounding black pool of night.  In the relative darkness everything became more and more disorienting.  Finally, we inched up to about 30 feet from the edge and gasped as the giant teeth thrust up through the ground only about 10 feet from us.  Enough!  There were no cowards in the group, only people who suddenly understood there was no real shame in avoiding certain death.  We had come to the edge of the precipice, and stepped back -- no, actually, we ran away, back to the car, the adrenalin rush and retelling lasting for hours.


In the Illinois bottom in October, I hitched a ride in a giant Harvestall for an hour, collecting and shelling and transferring thousands of bushels of corn and listening with a big smile to Bob Seger on the DVD six speaker system inside the air conditioned cab.  The driver/owner had no time for talking, being constantly on the short wave radio with his wife at the main farm.  She was watching the futures market, plugging numbers for propane, the various outmonth contracts and the current spot price at Havana into her desktop.  She also kept an eye on the daily and weekly weather report.  They finally decided today's loads would go to the dryer, then storage until next March.  The second round, he dropped Becca and me off at our car by the one tree near the field and he and his wife went back to reconsidering.  The man with the 2000 bushel truckload of corn was listening in and waiting patiently in the distance for instructions.  In town, the banker also waited and watched the market and hoped the loan repayments wouldn't be delayed until after the end of the month.   The combine shop people were furiously making repairs, both in house and in the fields.   Preachers prayed for dry weather instead of rain. 


Another time, up in a flat field north of the bluffs, Rebecca rode on my back behind an Allis Chalmers hay baler comically stopping every couple of minutes to ‘poop’ out a big round bale.  “Too bad,” said the old farmer, “you weren’t here 40 years ago when we still used the square bales, and you had to throw them up onto the wagon and hook-lift them up high enough to stack them five bales high!  Then, get them up the elevator into the hayloft full of wasps and bees and work up there in 125 degree heat to stack them again….and, if you were lucky, all for $1.00 an hour; worse, when I was a boy…you had three fellers on each side of the baler, pushing wires through to be caught and pushed back through and the ends finally twisted together to hold the bales together.  Afore that?  Well, every successful farmer needed to have 6 sons to do it all by hand and to make haystacks like your Frenchie painted.   Did I mention the wasps and bees?”


Rebecca in her carseat with a wonderful view, and I, took a ride with a farmer who had his own little Cessna.  We leveled off at about 2000 feet and lazily cruised up and down the valley, over by Sugar Creek and up, over the ineffable abomination they call “strip mines” and down Otter Creek to the Spoon, circling the tall smokestacks at the power plant in Havana and, then, after looking down on Twin Beeches and the fertile valley below it, completed the circuit by landing back at Goodluck.   God never made a prettier country.  Rebecca didn’t stop talking about the ‘plane ride’ for weeks.  The farmer won’t let me use his name.


I went to a high school football game one Friday night, and laughed when half the football team, instead of going back to the locker room for their halftime pep talk, took off pads and helmets to pick up their band instruments and help put on a show.  Woodland came back from a 20-7 halftime loss to win, 28-27 on the last play of the game.  You’d have thought the boys had won the Super Bowl or the World Cup, or something.  Fifty years from now I hope that game will be the one they remember and not the one they lost to Bushnell-Prairie City 59-23.


All of one Saturday we sat next to Brethren church and helped women peel and core apples to be cooked down slowly in a big, very old, iron cauldron into delicious apple butter, sold to support Missionary Work.  They told me the cauldron came to the New World with one of their ancestors and was spared the scrap drives for the first big war.  Then, I went to the county fair in Lewistown, and marveled at the size and quality of the livestock and produce, while collecting as many souvenirs as I could carry.  There were draft horses there bigger than most tractors.  The most popular tent was the one with a smiling, wholesome and beautiful young woman giving away demo versions of farm management software in exchange for your email address. Someone from Woodland Township had the best 4-H steer for the year, but it didn’t place at the State Fair in Springfield.


I rode in a speedboat as it pulled a water skier all the way from Browning to Goofy Ridge, 15 miles up and across the river.  Concentrating fishermen gave us the finger as we roared by, and I could not but agree with them and laugh at the incongruity of our noisy presence on the quiet river.


I walked, turning down one ride after another,  from the bluff,  with Rebecca in a backpack, down the four mile straight run of 136 ending at the Havana Bridge; when we arrived, I stopped in the middle of the bridge and we looked over the edge to watch two sets of 12 barges, one full going down and one empty going up, with corn and beans and wheat to be exported all over the world from New Orleans  and the Great Lakes port at Calumet.    And then, we gladly accepted a ride from an old man with a ¾ ton pickup hauling watermelon from Mason County back home to Woodland and Ipava and Table Grove.  He knew the public part of our story, and when he dropped Rebecca and me off at the Beeches, he gave me a long look, and began to say, and he couldn’t, then shook my hand, gave me a gap-toothed smile and a big watermelon, and left with a wave and quick glance in his mirror.



On a Saturday evening in the hot days of summer, I have often sat amongst a crowd, listening to the best efforts of boys and girls and men and women who congregate with their instruments in the bandstand in the park and manfully play old favorites for the very unappreciative people who argue about why the band isn’t what it used to be.  It must be a very long time since the ‘Musicman’ paid a visit to Woodland.


I see David Baumgartner in town at the drugstore or grocery once in awhile.  After he recouped, he went right back to Twin Beeches and finished Mama’s house.  When he was done, there was no way you could tell where the tunnel opening had been into the basement. The space under the cupola got screened off so no one could slide in there again.  Everything else looked like the day McKinsey and his two carpenters finished the job in 1920, save for the modern indirect lighting and power-flush toilets.   Then he met Judy Winston, right out of high school, and she was his ‘mushroom’, I guess.  Still, he gave me an “I’m happy but I’m not sure I should have let you get away” look one day.  At least, it's what I wanted it to be.  Maybe he wanted to ask if I had done something to his truck?


Mama also felt bad, she told me, about David being shot.  She felt she had put him in harm’s way.  I knew she had had to get a lawyer to get David to take some money and sign a paper such as Mama would never be held responsible for his being shot.  She didn’t know Becca and I had already crept into his driveway, raised his hood, and stuffed the air cleaner of his truck with $100’s so it wouldn’t run till he found them.  I noticed, later, the old truck had a new pinstriped paint job, and fancy lettering for his cabinetry business on the doors. 


The reason she had picked David, of all the ‘handyman’ types around town?  His father was one of the Woodland Fiberglass employees who had suffered emphysema and eventually died young.   It still puzzled me Mama felt any responsibility for the mistakes made by a father she never knew, who had died when she was just four months old.   “I just did”, she said.  “And, look what it almost cost Mr. Baumgartner.  Think of it as being German, and then, finding out, after the war, what Hitler did to the Jews and Gypsies and all the rest.  Then I buy him a ticket to Israel, to visit the holy land, and when he gets there, some Arab thinks he’s a Jew and starts shooting at him!”


“Mama,” I said, “I’ll do you one better.  Buddy Brinley’s father was a stockholder in Woodland Fiberglass.  You know, we're all in this thing together, and sometimes the threads get really tangled.... I think, from what I can make out, Mr. Glass was trying to take everyone’s mistakes and sins and guilt to himself when he put his gun in his mouth.  Granddad’s mistakes weren’t your mistakes, and your mistakes, if you would ever make any, aren’t mine!”


Mama mused a bit, and said she had heard, in confidence, the reason Mr. Glass had killed himself had as much to do with the fact the local bank was so screwed up for years after Farley disappeared.  They couldn't give Glass any  assurances he would get any credit after the news started to come out about the hazardous chemicals my Grandfather had been using. 


Mama smiled again, and revealed, “Did you ever know how it was Charles Varner sold Grandma and me his business and his house – how it was we could afford it?  Well, this ties in too – Mr. Varner had all of Ray Farley’s affairs dumped on him a year after he disappeared….His boys wanted to get their hands on their Dad’s money, but it would take 7 years before he could be declared ‘legally dead’.  Somebody had to run his affairs in the meanwhile, you know….  Varner told us he ran everything for the family for 8 years and took a percentage of the net worth of the estate each year….  By the time the courts acted, Charles Varner had a big 6 figure nest egg and the estate was worth twice as much.    So he kept on for another 10 or 12 years, and when I was old enough, he gave me some work too and took a shine to me, I guess….He went to Texas for awhile, then he moved to Las Vegas where he learned how to lose just enough to get all the perks at the big casinos.  He told us he was real good at Blackjack, and he practically gave us everything he had here.  He told us not to worry, because if he lost everything, as long as no two people at the IRS could answer the same question the same way, he’d be able to make a good living!  I’ve applied that advice and done pretty well, too.  God help us all if they ever pass the ‘Fair Tax’!!”


I sit at my computer in the dark after Rebecca has finally found sleep, and chat with friends I have made in every part of the world, all of whom say, “Why do you want to stay in a dinky place like Woodland?”  'Because', I thought to myself, 'I would never be at home anywhere else.'


We celebrated with an old friend in the Christian Church on the square late one Sunday evening as her oldest daughter, Maxine, 10, stepped down into the baptismal pool beneath the removable stage to take the minister’s outstretched hand.  Her father, having challenged the virility and questioned the species of the mother of a well-armed and trigger-happy security guard at a striker’s picket line in Moline was no longer ‘around’.  The strange reflections from the lights beneath and above the water produced an almost primal reaction in me.  Maxine descended until we saw only her head and shoulders, then the minister… “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I baptize Thee”, and she disappeared completely for a few seconds, to rise again, blinking, water streaming, the ordeal over, smiling and wondering why she didn’t feel any different?    Maybe if she went over to the Dunkards and got dipped three times?  I saw myself again, remembering an unquestioning, innocent age.


Last New Year’s Day, we watched proudly as Mama was sworn in as the first female Mayor of Woodland.   Oddly, for a woman raised in homemade clothing, she has a wonderful sense of style extending far beyond clothing to her choices of boyfriends, all handsome, all well to do, all from out of town, and none of them her bookkeeping customers.  Mama smiles all the time, these days.


A few weeks later, I was back at Lombard, counting my friend’s three children and asking her how she found time to prepare lesson plans and to serve on all those committees.


“Simple,” she said, “I gave up sex, so I've got an extra four hours every night.”  Still the story-teller, she just might win a Newberry this year.


I thought about continuing to pay the rent on the P. O. Box, but I didn’t know if Eddie had kept the number.   Finally, since there was nothing to lose, I sent a new note to the address in Peoria.  Eddie didn’t know I had opened the letter in the parking lot of the Post Office in Havana and copied down the account number and password.  At the time, I didn’t know what it was, for sure, but over time, it became obvious.  When Eddie yelled out the password to me as he was leaving, maybe he was trying to tell me something, I don’t know.  The new note changed the password from EVERLASTINGLIFE, to EVERLASTINGLOVE.  Confirmation came two days later, and I quickly redeposited all but $20000. I wasn't really giving it back, no, well, not quite; I just needed a safe place to keep it before deciding the best use for it.  Becka’s old diaper bag in the bottom of my bedroom closet just didn’t seem like enough security.  Neither Howie nor Eddie would ever be able to touch 'my' money unless they had my blessing to do it.  I suppose if they wanted to tie me up and threaten to cut off my fingers I would tell them anything they wanted, but I didn't expect those two to do anything of the sort.


 Obviously, I hoped, someday, to hear from him.  Once in awhile, to my surprise, I would find myself slipping into the old church on the town square, to quietly pray he was still alright.  He might be hard to locate, but I, I was easy to find.  If he wanted to find me, he could.  He might have seen my name in the Chicago or St. Louis paper, when I had used the title search papers for Twin Beeches to figure out who the dead woman probably was, and who the culprit must have been.  Farley’s son’s DNA proved who those bones belonged to, but the woman, well, they knew who she wasn’t, but not who she was….  The probable culprit was found, eventually, an Alzheimer’s patient in a Veteran’s nursing home in St. Petersburg, Nebraska, remembering nothing but his first pet dog’s name.  Still, he might have been an innocent man, and the real killer might still be out there….


When I went to the nursing home to tell Mr. Bader all about my latest discoveries, he asked me if I thought I knew the whole story, now.  Strangely, when I said ‘I think so’, he laughed until he coughed so hard they had to get him to lie down.  Finally, he was able to sigh, “’til you know who she was, you still have your mystery….”


But, no news was good news.  No one reported him dead.  No one caught up with Eddie, and, frankly, I’m not sure anyone ever looked for him.  The escape was a county matter, and, even with all the suspicion, Judge Knowles was still in charge; therefore, no warrants were issued nor descriptions broadcast.  Two years after the ‘great escape’, a man in a dark suit, wearing sunglasses, handed Judge Knowles a manila envelope while the Judge was coming up the courthouse steps.  They must have finally had the goods on him, for the next day, he announced he would step down immediately for health reasons and to spend more time with his wife and invalid mother. 


After a few weeks of peace and quiet, former Judge Knowles and Mr. Hawkins began a long tour of the Midwestern Migratory Bird Flyway, pulling a bass boat behind Knowles’ big Buick all the way from upper Manitoba to the Gulf of Mexico.  They were gone for 3 glorious months.  When they returned, and you are not going to believe this, Knowles got a bunch of his cronies together, obtained a license to make ethanol out of corn, took over the old fiberglass plant, invested in the equipment and put Howie Hawkins in charge as the production manager….As a result of this and many other ethanol plants, the price of corn is going sky high, making all the farmers very happy, but, of course, hamburger is now $4.59 a pound.  Schuyler County Home of Alternate Fuel Facilities, a shop converting regular engines to run on straight ethanol, is staffed by all of Eddie’s younger brothers.


I interviewed Judge Knowles two years after he left office, catching him at his home.  I got him to let me in from his front steps and to talk to me by telling him the box number of the ‘bank’ in Peoria.  Two hours later, after telling me most of the stories about himself and Howie you found in this book, he told me he didn’t care if I used them.  He’d just claim he made everything up to entertain me and Becky.  People would just laugh at me if I told them any of the stuff the Judge and Howie had done. 


I took the opportunity to ask His Honor whether, in his professional capacity, he had learned anything about Ray Farley not previously made public?  He grunted, thought about it, chuckled a little, and finally, "I'll tell you a story Judge Knowles, my father, told me.  Nothing to do with him disappearing, I don't think...  Seems my Daddy was a small town lawyer in Rushville and found himself losing just about every case he brought up to Judge Sterling.  After awhile, it came obvious to Daddy that Judge Sterling wasn't just a bad judge, he was a crooked one, so he decided to try to run against him back in 1950 when Sterling's second 8 year term was up."


"Trouble was, everyone knew Sterling's name and nobody knew the Knowles name, so even when he gathered 10 pages of facts intended to prove Sterling was on the take from anyone who could afford the price, he came down to the last week of the campaign without a chance in heck of winning.  As a last, desperate effort, he decided to print all the dirt he had found and let folks see what was what, even if he still didn't win.  Trouble was, he was broke already from trying to campaign.  We didn't have much to start with."


"Then is when he decided to call the Woodland bank, out of the county, to see if they would loan him the money to get the printing done at the Woodland printing shop.  'How Much', they said, and he figured maybe $500 would cover everybody in the county, but he'd also need another $1000 to get helpers to distribute the material door to door to every one of the 2600 households.  'Nope', they said, 'not for a political campaign'."


"Then he got a call from Ray Farley, who wasn't yet the chairman of the board, but he said he wanted to know if he and some friends could help, personally.  Laws being what they were, and not wanting to break any just to get elected, he told Farley he couldn't accept more than $100 from any one person.  Farley said, 'I'll pick you up tonight and take you to meet some friends of mine in Macomb'."


"When they got to Macomb, Farley took them, right at dark, to a private club behind a bakery shop.  There were about 6 guys around a poker table and they asked my Dad to have a chair.  Farley whispered to my Dad  his friends like to judge the cut of a man by how he plays poker.  Dad had played a little while he was in a WPA camp during the thirties, so he knew how to play 5 card Stud.  So, when the handed him the deck and waited, he called 'Five Card Stud, dueces and one-eyed Jacks wild! Usual house limits...'.  He said he almost, well, had to excuse himself to use the facility, when ten dollar bills came flying into the pot from all 6 directions.  He pulled his last ten dollars out of his old worn billfold and said a quick prayer to himself.  "


"Strangely enough, on the very first deal, he held 4 of a kind, 2 kings, a one-eye and a deuce.  Still, none of the other players folded, and he had to 'go light' with a nod from Farley as the betting went around with a full three raises...  When he won the hand,  he was ahead over $200, and afterwards, every time he had a hand worth betting, he pushed it and almost always won.  By 10 p.m. he was up $1500, and all the rest of the players suddenly realized how late it had gotten.  Farley and my Dad sat there, my Dad stunned, Farley grinning.  'I guess they took a shine to you, Knowles', Farley finally remarked.  'Want another glass of ginger ale before we take off for home?'"


"So, MJ, now you've got my Ray Farley story.  Dad had the literature printed right up there in Woodland, got 10 high school kids with jalopies to deliver it door to door, got himself elected by 10 votes and then cleaned up the mess the former judge had left, stopped the chaingang racket, tickets being fixed in municipal court, found out who was stealing road construction equipment and selling it in Joliet and sent them up there, too, to the prison.  He never had a bad thing to say about Farley, and, so far as I know, didn't know a darned thing about what happened to him.  He always thought it must have been a cuckolded husband, though.  You already know that when his heart started giving him trouble while I was still using his old office on the square, he asked for a special election and had me put my name up in place of his.  Nobody even ran against me the first time."



Five years and two months to the day after I last saw Eddie, I saw Howard Hawkins in Woodland, driving down the leaf covered street toward the ethanol refinery in a new Hybrid.   He saw me and pulled over to the curb and waited for me to catch up.  I was on the way over to the elementary school to meet my first grader, Rebecca,  to walk her downtown for an ice cream with Mama.


“I never apologized to you”, he began, ducking down a bit to see me out the far window, shaking his head, “for what Eddie put you through.”


“Why, Reverend Hawkins, you don’t have to worry.  Eddie probably, no, actually, saved my life.”  Now Hawkins could begin to see things in a different light.  I could also tell he liked it I called him ‘Reverend’.


  He pondered, then leaned farther my way and almost whispered, “I heard from him.”


“You did? Wonderful! How is he?  What is he doing, What did he say?”


“He asked about you.  I told him you were back in Woodland and you were looking very well, and didn't seem to have yourself a man, yet....He seemed awful glad to hear it.”


He must have seen me blush and smile, for about a week later, I got a small thin envelope in the mail, general delivery, no return address.  Inside, one picture, three x five.  It was a little older and more handsome Eddie, standing and smiling in front of the big front window of a new service station.  In his right hand was a wrench, in the other, a grease gun.  


Two hours of ‘Photoshop’, internet and telephone later, I knew:


From the reflection in the window, a license plate from Wisconsin to confirm the postmark on the envelope.


From the license plate, a registration number…


From the Department of Motor Vehicles, Madison, WI, the address of the person who owned that license plate in Ripon, Wisconsin…


From a close-up of Eddie’s left hand, no wedding ring…


From the Ripon, WI Chamber of Commerce, the address of the new Service Station recently leased by new Ripon College graduate, Edward Hopkins.


Rebecca and I decided as soon as school was out, we were going to go see the ‘Birthplace of the Republican Party”, and the man who knew I could learn everything important from one little picture, if I wanted to....  I hoped it would be an educational and stimulating experience for both of us.  Lord knows, I had waited for one long enough.  Maybe, I should pack an umbrella?



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