One time a few years ago, I participated in our city-wide "Big Read," which is a program that includes giving a lot of people free copies of a good book and having various kinds of events related to that book in order to encourage reading. The year that I volunteered, we were reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. If you haven't read it, it's set in the future in a time and place when things like sitting on a front porch are unheard of and televisions take up all four walls in the parlor and firemen are trained to burned books.
Anyway, I volunteered to lead a book discussion group at a local library. The book group was mostly older women and I quickly realized that the discussion was not the sort of classroom situation I was used to--the ladies had their own agenda and my plan to close-read passages went out the window as the conversation spiraled out of control to become a tirade about the "good old days" and how times have changed now and you can't even let your kids go play in the park and kids today only want to be on their phones or computer. (I mean, the constant texting is obnoxious, but the vast majority of my students are actually pretty delightful people once you get to know them.)
I know it's easy to look at the past with rose-colored glasses, but I was sort of stunned to hear women who had lived through the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. talk about how bad things were today. I mean really? Seriously? You think things have gone downhill from then? I mean, even Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer were killing people in the 1970s and 1980s (My serial-killer knowledge rubbed off from my college roomie who was a true-crime buff and I believe declared herself a criminal justice major for a short time before deciding to go into elementary education. Which sounds much weirder when I type it out like that...). I don't have any crime statistics memorized, but I just have to roll my eyes when I hear people lament about the state of the world today as though our personal safety is at a much greater risk now than it was a decade or three ago.
Of course, I understand that we all like to wax nostalgic about days gone by, but sometimes it's just too much for me. Case in point: David's grandma came to town and stayed with us over the weekend and when she started kvetching about some news story that came on the radio, I swiftly came in with a redirect and asked her to expand upon a story she'd told us last fall.
Last year, when David's grandpa was ailing but not doing so poorly yet, we made a weekend trip to Branson and took them on a driving tour of rural Southern Missouri, near the small town of Gainesville. They both grew up in smaller towns outside of Gainesville, and that's where they met.
One of the tiny towns we visited is called Souder, which is David's grandma's maiden name. A cousin of hers still runs the general store, which is the only commercial building in Souder. We visited the little white church with its tidy little cemetery where his great-grandparents and some great-aunts and -uncles are buried.
(We had to drive down a gravel-turned-to-dirt road to get there and the road really would have been more appropriate for a four-wheeler or at least a Jeep, but we managed in our Prius).
Most of the gravestones in the cemetery are relatively modest, the vast majority are anywhere from 30 to 100 years old. One headstone was especially large and kind of ostentatious. I noticed it because the last name on the grave was "Taylor" (first name: Buoy) and because it also included the inscription: "Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends."
David's grandma knew almost everyone buried in this cemetery--including Buoy Taylor--so I asked her about his gravestone, expecting to hear an inspirational story of self-sacrifice.
Well, the story of ol' Buoy Taylor (no relation and no idea how he came into his first name) is that he and his brother Ralph learned of a local farmer/rancher who had just sold a head of cattle. They knew he was flush with cash from the sale, so they killed him. They hid his body under a brush pile, and then they killed a dog and threw it on top of the brush pile so as to disguise the smell.
It was actually David's grandma's brother who discovered the body. He was part of the search party who went out looking for this farmer.
(I want to say that the farmer was stabbed to death with a pitchfork, but I think I might totally be embellishing this part of the story. He was probably shot with a rifle. I'll have to double check with David's grandma on the details. A pitchfork just popped into my head, but that seems too grisly even for this tale.)
As the story goes, everybody knew that Buoy and Ralph had done it, and that they'd been in on it together. They were trouble-makers through and through. Evidently they were caught before they even had a chance to spend the cash, because David's grandma was pretty sure that the money was returned to the farmer's family. Both men were arrested, and their father ("Ol' Doc Taylor" everybody called him) hired lawyers to defend his sons.
Nobody is quite sure what went down, but in the end, Buoy took the rap for Ralph.
Ralph got off scot-free and lived out his days with a family and a decent job in Kansas City (In fact, David's great-uncle visited him a few times when they were both living there, but his grandma was quick to add that they were not friends--"they just, you know, grew up together," which evidently is a legitimate reason to associate with known criminals).
Buoy died in prison.
And Ralph paid for his headstone.
My mouth was gaping open as David's grandma rather matter-of-factly related this story, which she remembers mostly overhearing as a kid listening in on adult conversations.
The headstone apparently created quite a scandal when it was placed in the church cemetery, as everyone knew what it referred to, which seemed slightly at odds with the Bible verse it references.
Anyway, I'm not sure she got the implication of my conversational redirect--as in maybe the good ol' days weren't quite so good when you recall that you couldn't necessarily trust your neighbors not to murder you and stick you under a brush pile--but I considered it a little reminder that we're certainly not living in a perfect world, but then again nobody ever has.
Also: mid-century small town scandals are crazy.