I Can See China From This Hole In The Ozarks


There was ab­so­lutely no ques­tion in Mike’s mind that any fair-minded mother of a 4-year-old would over­look her pre­vi­ous ad­mon­ish­ment for cross­ing the street if there was an op­por­tu­nity to see China.

In fact, when Mike’s older brother, Gary, later told the boy’s mother about the hole, its depth and the sight of the coun­try on the other side of the Earth, she would al­most cer­tainly take Mike’s hand and walk him across the street to get a look at such a mirac­u­lous sight. There­fore, in cross­ing Noel’s Main Street, the young boy would be sav­ing his mother the time and ef­fort it would take to look into that deep­est of holes.

Mike, his brother Gary, and their mother Donna Lee Hill, lived in the small south­west Mis­souri Ozarks town of Noel. Mike’s fa­ther, Idas Wad­die Jack Poynor, ceased to be a part of the fam­ily when he and Donna di­vorced four years ear­lier. In 1959 Jack was struck and killed by a car while walk­ing across a Wi­chita, Kan., street. The two young boys, one f4 and the other 9years of age, lived in a small white-sided house on Gratz Street. The house owned by Donna’s parents, Roy and Ot­tis Hill, sat on a small lot just across the street from the city’s old cin­der-block jail.

Roy and Ot­tis owned and op­er­ated the Main Street café known as Roy’s Café. The cou­ple made ends meet serv­ing home-cooked meals to the lo­cal res­i­dents in the win­ter and fall sea­sons while the spring and sum­mer in­flux of tourists al­ways cre­ated a lack of empty ta­bles and chairs in the café. Ot­tis over­saw the café’s daily op­er­a­tions while Donna car­ried white china plates filled with ham­burg­ers, chicken fried steaks, and mashed pota­toes to the hun­gry pa­trons. Donna had but a short walk to work each day be­cause the busy cafe was lo­cated just around the cor­ner from the fam­ily’s Gratz Street house.

Ot­tis spent the sum­mer evenings in the home’s small kitchen bak­ing pies for the fol­low­ing day’s hun­gry pa­trons. Mike re­mem­bers that his grand­mother would of­ten bake 10 or more pies each evening and the aroma of hot blue­ber­ries, straw­ber­ries, ap­ples and peaches filled each room of the three-bed­room home.

For chil­dren grow­ing up in Noel, the sum­mers were a time for fun. Mike and Gary of­ten walked across Gratz Street and down the hill that sloped away from the jail to But­ler Creek and its shal­low cool wa­ters. There Gary and his two best friends, Clark Lee Wylie and By­ron Lee Huitt, talked about the heat, the sharp rocks that formed the creeks bed and the mis­chief they might get into that day. Mike’s name was some­times men­tioned as the three young con­spir­a­tors conceived their mis­chievous plans. As the de­vi­ous plots were dis­cussed Gary would some­times give a glance and a wry smile in Mike’s di­rec­tion.

Mike heard the same stern spo­ken warn­ing from his mother each and ev­ery morn­ing: “Don’t cross the street. Do you hear me? Stay on this side of that road.” It was if these di­rec­tions had been in­cluded in a book writ­ten specif­i­cally for the moth­ers of small chil­dren. “I’m not kid­ding don’t let me catch you cross­ing that street.”

Mother’s in­struc­tions are dif­fi­cult to ra­tio­nal­ize for 4-year-old boys. The part about the street and its cross­ing seemed clear enough, but what about the time Mike walked to the hobo camp. Vagabonds reg­u­larly gath­ered on the grav­elly banks of But­ler Creek just south of Noel. The men cooked and told sto­ries and to a cu­ri­ous boy of 4 the men wear­ing large hats and tat­tered cloth­ing seemed harm­less enough.

There came a day when Mike just had to walk to the camp for a bet­ter look at these con­stant trav­el­ers of the roads and rails. A small gath­er­ing of men were sit­ting around an open fire talk­ing, laugh­ing and eat­ing. One of the men be­came aware of Mike’s pres­ence: “Hey kid, you hun­gry?”

“Yes sir,” Mike an­swered.

“Well then come on over and have a seat on this here log. I’ll fix you a plate of hobo stew.”

Mike saw noth­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the of­fer, so he took a seat and with an old metal spoon en­joyed the meat and pota­toes that cov­ered the metal plate.

Some­how, pos­si­bly through his in­for­mant brother, Mike’s mother found out about his meal and tanned his bot­tom. Ap­par­ently eat­ing hobo stew with the men at the hobo camp was as se­ri­ous a trans­gres­sion as cross­ing Main Street. There were so many things to re­mem­ber when you were young.

Mike now re­calls that it was a hot July day in the Ozarks when Gary coaxed him into break­ing the rule of all rules — that of cross­ing the street. While Mike stood on the side­walk in front of Roy’s Café his head turned slowly from side to side. The dis­cern­ing eyes of a 4-yearold can de­tect the mi­nut­est de­tail of anything which is out of place. There, across the street and in front of the Ozark Theatre, the boy’s eyes be­came fix­ated on his brother.

Gary was bent over at the waist and ap­peared to be fas­ci­nated with a dark patch on the side­walk.

“Hey, what are you looking at?”

“China,” Gary al­most casually replied.

“That’s not China,” Mike said as he scoffed at his brother’s claim.

“It is too. You bet­ter come and take a look for your­self.”

“How do you know it’s China,” Mike asked. “You’ve never even been to China.”

“I saw a pic­ture of it in a school book one time. That’s China all right.”

Well, that was good enough for Mike.

Af­ter all, if a pic­ture of the land of the dragon was in one of his brother’s school books than the hole most cer­tainly must punc­ture the globe finally end­ing in China. Mike had to catch a glimpse for him­self, so he gave an over the shoul­der look back at the café and — once as­sured that his mother was in­side serv­ing lunch to the tourists — he crossed the street.

Now, ad­mit­tedly, Mike had never re­ally seen China, so he had no point of ref­er­ence as to what the coun­try of strange speak­ing peo­ple ac­tu­ally looked like. The im­age seen at the bot­tom of that hole might be China or it could merely be some dirt which lay be­neath a patch of the Main Street con­crete side­walk in need of re­pair. Who was to say?

If only he could catch a glimpse of an Ori­en­tal-looking per­son wear­ing a large pointed bam­boo hat with a chin strap. That would un­equiv­o­cally be proof that this hole was a very deep one and opened up on the other side of the world.

The star­ing and squint­ing of eyes was sud­denly in­ter­rupted by the sen­sa­tion of some­thing com­ing into con­tact with the loosely worn “Tuff Nut” jeans which cov­ered Mike’s but­tocks. Mike had ex­pe­ri­enced this sen­sa­tion sev­eral times in the past and in­stantly rec­og­nized the feel­ing as that of a wil­low switch forcibly strik­ing his but­tocks.

“I thought I told you not to cross the street,” Mike’s mother yelled. As she con­tin­ued to rapidly slap the piece of wood against his der­riere she said: “Sup­pose you were hit by a truck or a trac­tor, how would you feel then, huh?”

Grab­bing the sob­bing young­ster by the arm, the mother of two pulled Mike across the street and into the café. “Now you sit in this chair and don’t you dare move a mus­cle,” she said.

Later that night Mike looked back on the in­ci­dent and his mother’s ques­tion, “how would you feel then?” He thought to him­self, how silly the ques­tion ac­tu­ally was. If he were run over by a large hay-bale-laden farm truck the tires would al­most cer­tainly crush him to death, leav­ing him with­out the abil­ity to re­con­sider his de­ci­sion to cross Main Street. He never, how­ever, men­tioned the irony of the ques­tion to his mother.

Mike’s mother was a great mom and an ac­com­plished multi-tasker. She fre­quently scolded him while con­tin­u­ing to wal­lop his be­hind with the as­sis­tance of a handy wil­low twig. There were rare oc­ca­sions when she not only con­tin­ued to scold him but switched hands. He now painfully re­calls that she was very adroit with ei­ther hand and never missed a beat as she pad­dled his be­hind with the aid of that sting­ing wil­low tree shoot. Donna Lee died in 1987.

For many years Roy’s Café was a place where peo­ple could en­joy a home-cooked meal and a slice of hot apple pie. The old café changed hands sev­eral times over the en­su­ing years and was known by many names; The Sail Inn, Evans Café and Carl’s Café.

Roy Hill en­tered lo­cal pol­i­tics and, in 1951, he be­came Noel’s mayor. Roy died in 1954 and in his honor the newly com­pleted Noel Main Street lights were named Roy Hill White Way. Ot­tis passed away in Novem­ber 1987.

To this day Mike some­times feels a twinge in the seat of his pants when he crosses to the other side of Noel’s Main Street and the hole to China; well, that hole was filled in long ago — but if he squints his eyes re­ally hard and uses all of his imag­i­na­tion, he can some­times see big brother Gary star­ing into that crevice.

Gary passed away on the fifth day of Jan­uary in the year 2016 and life with­out a big brother just isn’t the same.

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