Biographical, Historical, Fiction



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MYRTLE CHAPMAN


I had hit a wall. The words wouldn’t come and the story wouldn’t develop. This is a writer’s greatest fear. This is the dreaded writer’s block. It had happened before but it usually went away after a few days or a week. The longest it had ever happened to me was two weeks. I am now officially worried because this block had been going on for two months. I make my living as a writer and if I couldn’t get the words on paper I couldn’t make money. I tried everything I could think of to get past it but nothing that had worked in the past would work now. My last two books were still selling so I was getting royalties but the publisher was putting a lot of heat on me to get another book on the shelves. They didn’t want me to be forgotten. I needed to try something new. I live in the Greenwich Village part of New York City and decided to take a driving trip across country. I had a friend in Santa Fe that I thought could help me. She is a writer and someone with a great deal of insight into the writer’s mind. I hoped that a change of scenery would help me to get past the problem.

Taking a driving trip may seem to be a strange choice since I don’t own an automobile. Owning a car in Manhattan is more a nuisance than a need. Eighty percent of what I do is within walking distance of my apartment. Anywhere else I go is less than a ten dollar taxi ride so a car is not a necessity. I do have a driver’s license and keep it up to date. Being gone is not a problem as I get all of my bills online and pay everything on line. I was able to rent a nice low mileage Ford Fusion and was ready to go. I planned on being gone about two weeks. I crossed the George Washington Bridge to Jersey to take I-80 west.

I had driven about two hours when I realized that the only thing that I was seeing was trucks. I saw the backs of trucks before I passed them or the back of trucks after they passed me. I am not an experienced driver so the high speeds were terrifying to me. I was getting no motivation from this adventure. The next exit from the interstate was Stroudsburg, Pa and I got off. I was fortunate to find a Barnes and Noble and picked up state maps for every state that I was going too cross. I found a nice route that would take me across Pennsylvania and into Ohio. I found a nice motel in a small town in central Pennsylvania. I am not fussy about motels. As long as they are moderately clean then that is acceptable. The only special requirement is that it has Wi Fi for access to the internet. I seldom watch TV so that is unimportant. I looked around the town and found it rather interesting. I visited the library and was surprised to find three of my books on the shelf. I talked with the librarian and told her who I was. She asked if I would sign the books so I did. She told me they were checked out a lot. The restaurant was the social center of the town and I talked to several people while I dined.

The time I spent in that town gave me a new insight into the importance of this trip. I thoroughly enjoyed the time and determined that I would not hurry the trip. Two weeks was not a firm number. I could take as long as I want and get the maximum from the trip. Every town I passed received a brief visit from me. As I moved across Ohio and into Indiana I found a number of interesting little towns. The cities I went through as fast as possible. I talked to a large number of people at gas stations, restaurants, motels, and stores and found each person interesting. I was having the time of my life and learning more about life than I ever thought that I could.

I crossed Illinois and Missouri and went into Kansas. I continued the slow, ambling trip. Some days I would drive as little as 100 miles. I had been gone from New York for ten days and was barely half way to my destination. I was in Southeast Kansas and had just finished lunch at a small town restaurant. I had an interesting conversation with a local farmer and was surprised that he knew of my books and had even read one. I had not expected that he would have read one of my books and realized that I had an elitist attitude. I needed to get my equilibrium back and realize that I am nothing special.

I left the town on a little two lane road. The sign said the next town was eight miles away. As I was driving I noticed a small lane leading to the right from the road. It looked unused as I drove past. I thought about that lane and a mile down the road I turned around. I had decided that I wanted to see what was up that lane. When I got to the lane I pulled off the road and started walking up the lane. Two hundred yards up the lane was a rise and when I crested the rise I saw what appeared to be an abandoned farm. I didn’t think anyone was around so I wouldn’t be trespassing so I walked down to the farm. The old house was in fair condition though all the windows had been broken, probably by local kids that like to vandalize such places. The house had been white but most of the paint had peeled off. The barn was in worse condition and was on the verge of collapse. The other outbuildings were all collapsed and the outhouse had been pushed onto its side. There was some old, rusted machinery. I recognized an old harrow and a single blade plow. The farm was all weeds, mostly sunflowers. This seemed strange as all of the land beyond the farm was cleared and planted. Why had this land remained unfarmed. I needed to find out.

I learned that the county seat was in Chanute so I headed in that direction. The courthouse was not difficult to find as it was in the center of town in the center of the square. I found the recorder’s office and looked up the property. A very nice lady helped me to find the right piece of land and gave me the name of the owner of the farm. Her name was Myrtle Chapman and gave an address in Independence, Kansas. The address was a nursing home. The helpful lady directed me to the office of the county assessor where I learned that the taxes were paid up to date. Since the land was fallow the taxes were based on unimproved property and amounted to only $300 a year. I needed to talk with Myrtle. I found a nice hotel in Chanute and did some research on the internet. I also realized that I had some bills that were due so took care of the banking business.

The next morning I got an early start to Independence and found the nursing home. It was a little early so I had a good breakfast in a local restaurant. These small town restaurants really know how to make a good breakfast. I had an interesting conversation with two older men at the next table. The men knew Myrtle Chapman and told me that she was a delightful lady that I would enjoy meeting. I arrived at the nursing home and asked the lady at the desk if I could speak to Myrtle Chapman. She asked what it was about and I explained that I saw the farm and wanted to ask a few questions. She sent for Myrtle.

My concept of nursing home tenants is that they are all in wheel chairs or use walkers. Imagine my surprise when this sprightly elderly lady came walking down the hall. She said that she was Myrtle and who was I. I explained to her that I was a writer and that writers have a natural curiosity. I had seen her farm and wanted to know why it was fallow and why no one lived there. Myrtle said that it was a long story and I told her that I had plenty of time. She said that she hadn’t been to the farm in three or four years and, if I had a car, she would like me to take her to see it. I agreed to take her the next day. We talked for a while and it was time for lunch at the nursing home. I asked Myrtle if she would join me for dinner that evening at one of the local eateries. She quickly agreed, explaining quietly that the food at the nursing home wasn’t very good. I said that I would pick her up at six. I spent the afternoon looking around Independence. I went to the library and found my books on the shelf.

I got to the nursing home promptly at six and Myrtle was waiting and ready to go. I sensed that she was anxious to go. I asked her where we should eat and she said that Jan’s Café was her favorite and told me how to get there. When we went into the café everyone shouted a greeting to Myrtle. Most of the people came over to our table to say hello. Myrtle was kind enough to introduce me to everyone. I suspect that everyone wondered who I was. I found out why Jan’s was her favorite café. The food was excellent and plentiful. We sat and ate and talked for several hours. She asked me about how I lived as a writer. I asked her why the farm wasn’t in use and I got the same answer. It’s a long story. We got back to the nursing home at 8:30 and said goodnight. Myrtle asked me if we could leave at nine in the morning for the hour trip to the farm so the arrangement was made.

On the drive to the farm, Myrtle started talking about her life. I stopped her and asked if I could record her talking. She said yes and started talking again. We arrived at the turn onto the lane to the farm. As we drove up the lane slowly, I could see her looking all around. When we went over the rise and could see the farm I could see copious tears running down her face. I couldn’t tell if they were tears of joy at seeing the farm again or tears of sadness at seeing the sad state of the farm. I decided not to ask. We got to the farm and got out of the car and started walking around. Myrtle pointed out that the rhubarb bed was still producing and so was the asparagus. The strawberry bed was overrun with weeds. She asked to see the cemetery and told me where it was. We walked to it and I could see that she was extremely distressed as it was covered in weeds and you could barely make out the headstones. I promised that I would have it cleaned up before I left.

All this time she was talking and I was recording. We had a light lunch that I had brought and I could see that Myrtle was getting tired. I suggested that we leave and she asked to stay a while longer while she reminisced about her life on the farm. I was recording every word she said. We left the farm about four to drive back to Independence and stopped at Jan’s for dinner before I took Myrtle to the nursing home. We said our goodbyes and Myrtle was effusive in her thanks for taking her to the farm. She said that it was the best day she had had in a long time. I asked her to keep in touch and if she needed anything to let me know. I also talked to the woman that ran the nursing home and gave her my phone number and e-mail address and to let me know if Myrtle needed anything.

The next morning I drove to the small town next to the farm and found two high school boys that were loafing. I asked them if they wanted to make two hundred dollars and they jumped at the chance. They gathered the tools we needed and we drove to the farm and cleaned up the family cemetery. I took several pictures to send to Myrtle. It was time to go home as I had an idea for a new book and I needed to get to work on it while the idea was fresh.

On the drive to New York I listened again and again to the recording I had made of Myrtle’s recollections. A synopsis of her story is what you will read.

Myrtle, and her twin sister Mabel, were born on the farm in 1922. She had a brother, Melvin. He was one year older than the twins. They were a happy family and the farm was prosperous. Myrtle’s mother died in childbirth when Myrtle was five. The baby also died. Her Father’s sister came to live with them and help with the children and the farm. Her Father was Harold and his sister was Emma. Emma’s husband had been killed in France in the Great War. Emma was not a fun loving person. She was very stern but she was good to the children.

The children attended a two room school about a mile from the farm. One room was for the first to fourth grade students and the other room was for the fifth to eighth grade students. There was only one teacher but there were only twenty students in all the grades. When it was time to go to high school they went to the nearest town on a bus.

When the Great Depression hit the family suffered. Prices for farm commodities fell drastically but the family still had plenty to eat as they grew their own food. Myrtle remembered that the Santa Fe tracks ran close to their property. They saw a lot of men that were moving around and looking for work. They were called hoboes. Scarcely a week went by without men coming to the farm looking for work. Harold had no work for them but no one left the farm without having a good meal and some extra food to take with them. Harold felt sorry for the men and felt that he had to do what he could to help and they had food that they could give them.

Myrtle remembered December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They were listening to the radio while having lunch. They all followed the news closely and when President Roosevelt declared war on the Axis powers they were happy. In early January Melvin went into Chanute and volunteered for the Army. He was sent to Fort Riley for training. They were forming a new division of men from Kansas and Nebraska. Melvin came home for two weeks before going overseas and it was a tearful time. Three months later they received the dreaded telegram from the war department that Melvin was killed in North Africa.

Myrtle and Mabel went to Joplin to work in a plant that made food for the soldiers. These packages were called C Rations. They felt that it was important work as the men had to have food. The work was tedious and boring but the girls were happy to be helping the war effort. They made the forty mile trip home when they could but they lived in a boarding house in Joplin.

The war ended and the plant converted back to making food for the regular, civilian market. The girls were no longer needed as the men were home and needed the jobs. Myrtle and Mabel moved back to the farm. They were needed as the farm was once again prosperous. They were growing corn and soy bean and the price was high. The government was buying a lot of commodities to send to Europe for the Marshall Plan. There were no men in their lives as there were not that many men available. A number of men had died in the war. Many were still in the Army and a large number of men had decided to move to the city where there were better opportunities. Like the old war song said “how you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree”.

Aunt Emma passed in 1965 and father Harold died in 1970. They were both buried in the family cemetery. (I saw the headstones). Myrtle and Mabel were now running the farm. This was a herculean task for two women but they managed and actually did a very good job. They hired men for jobs they couldn’t do such as bailing and stacking hay but most of the plowing and planting and fertilizing they did themselves. As they got older they found the work too arduous and in 1997 at the age of 75 they quit farming. The still lived on the farm but did not work other than keeping some chickens for eggs and food and a cow for milk. Mabel passed away in 2002 after a long illness and Myrtle was alone for the first time in her life. She decided that she could no longer live by herself on the farm and in 2004 she moved into the nursing home and had been there ever since.

At the end of the recording and one of the last things that Myrtle told me was that she had led a full and happy life. She had been surrounded by family love. She only had one regret and that was that she had never known a man’s love and wondered what it was like. She laughingly said that she was probably the only ninety year old virgin I would ever know.

I arrived in New York and went right to work on my new book. I had been inspired by the trip and by Myrtle. Ten weeks later I delivered the completed manuscript to my publisher. They were delighted with the result and I am happy to say the book was well received.

Three months and five days after my return to New York I received a call from the owner of the nursing home telling me that Myrtle had passed away in her sleep the night before. She did tell me that my visit had made Myrtle very happy and she was more relaxed and comfortable for her remaining days. I immediately made arrangements to fly to Kansas City so I could be at the funeral. Myrtle asked to be buried in the family cemetery on the farm and her lawyer made sure that it was done. The lawyer told me that he would now be selling the farm. The proceeds of the sale would go to various churches that Myrtle had attended. One part of the deed would be that the family cemetery must remain where it is and have perpetual care.

Meeting Myrtle was one of the high points of my life. She was a delight and an inspiration. I would never have written my new book if I had not met her. Maybe you read the book. It is called “Jasper Potluck” and is about an old west outlaw that turns lawman and cleans up one the roughest towns in Arizona. Did I forget to tell you that I write novels about the old West?




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