for Pen Masters’ critique JC Ragland Dec, 2010
Route 66 Killed Grandpa Ragland
Route 66 connected our family farm to church and town – a trinity of sorts. Our farm was Grandpa Ragland’s farm plus two more. The shadow of Grandpa Ragland’s death hovered over my 1950s childhood. The shadow evolved into an event with logic, as I grew old enough to understand cause and effect. It wasn’t a farm accident that killed Grandpa. He’d only run out of cornmeal.
After his WWII tour of duty, Dad bought out his sisters’ shares in their family farm. I was one; my sister was three. Later, he bought two adjacent 80-acre farms and with my mom, built one of the first modern dairy farms in post-war Missouri.
I experienced what some would call an idyllic childhood – and it was by some standards although most people have no clue that a 1050s farm childhood was fraught with dangers. While we kids reveled in our innocence, 1950s farmers had a higher rate of injury than any other occupation except mining.
Grandpa Ragland, even in his senior years, walked four miles to town to save the aging work horse for farm use. He walked fast and with head down, watching for large rocks in the creek-gravel covered road and thinking - or daydreaming or worrying a bout Grandma Mattie’s treatments in Columbia’s cancer hospital. By the time of his last walk to town to buy cornmeal, he was hard of hearing but still had a full head of mostly coal black hair. He likely also had cataracts because he did not see or hear the car until too late. Shock must have etched his face as he saw the 1939 milk truck after he stepped onto the highway - Route 66 - still a novelty to him. The driver, too, would have registered shock and maybe yelled, “No!” as the man stepped into his lane. Grandpa’s intense blue eyes probably widened with horror a heartbeat before impact. Grandpa bounced and fell still, the concrete of the highway far harder than his Welch-Irish skull.
Grandpa Arthur Hudson Ragland was the first person killed by a car on Highway Sixty-Six and his death rocked the 1944 Laclede County community. The highway brought good, modern things. Economic growth with tourism. Ease of transport for emergencies and farmers needing supplies. And suddenly, death.
Then more death during the 1950s and 1960s. The dangers of Route 66 grew exponentially over the years, as cars grew larger and faster. No seatbelts in those giant eight-cylinder beauties that rocketed down the highway at seventy-plus miles per hour. The cool driver held the right hand on the steering wheel and the left outside the rolled-down window. The super cool driver held the left hand on the wheel and the right hand around a girlfriend snuggled close enough to smell her Breck shampoo.
The curved lip on the sides of the two-laned Route 66 required a steady hand on the wheel because a nudge of that curb flipped a car fast as an eye blink. Too many drivers tried to pass in too short a space. Semi-tractor trailors carried tons and tons of goods from town to town faster and cheaper than the railroads. The big trucks slowed on hills and daring drivers roared into the left lane to pass, daring a car to not come over the hill head on.
By the time that I-44 opened in 1962 – the year I started high school and left childhood behind - the highway had been dubbed “Bloody 66.” Grandpa Ragland’s death paled in collective community memory by 1962 - except in my family. At the Phillipsburg exit of I-44, even today as I turn onto Old 66 to go to my aunt’s house, I think of Grandpa. The convoy from Fort Leonard Wood passed and he thought the highway was clear so stepped out and – the milk truck. Only a eyelash flutter in time, but an eternity in family stories.