Look, she says, we’re crossing the Missouri River.
Half there and half somewhere, I politely looked at the muddy flow of water.
We finally reach Hannibal, Missouri. My wife exits the car and walks along the shore of that wide Mississippi River. I stay in the car, a bit impressed at how wide it is, but still, it too is muddy, and trash floats by.
She coaxes me to walk a short distance, and there we are in what many say was Tom Blankenship’s old home. Well, I say, could this really be Tom Sawyer’s best friend’s home. If so, no wonder he lived in the street. It was small, just two rooms. The header of the front door being less than six feet to the ground. But, I felt an awakening, as I pushed my two hands up against that header. Yes, indeed, this has the feel of that good hearted boy, Huck Finn. If it wasn’t, I wanted it to be. And so it is.
I hear the train rumbling through. Could this possibly be the same sound Sam heard back in 1845?
Climbing through Sam’s home, I discover they kept a slave. Sam’s family owned six slaves and sold five of them to make ends meet. Just think, America’s greatest novelist was a slave owner. Mark Twain owned a slave.
Sam’s mom did not think that slavery was slavery back then. After all, this was the antebellum south, the place that Samuel Clemons looked back on, to write his novels, among those; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc.
One hundred miles south in St. Louis, Dred and Harriet Scott, enslaved African Americans, thought differently and sued for their freedom. But in 1857, the Supreme Court agreed with Sam’s mom. A slave’s a slave the judge said. It took the civil war to turn this around.
One state over Harriet Beecher Stowe, in the early 1830’s, witnessed firsthand the treatment of slaves. This motivated her to write the classic and inflammatory novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, which historical accounts suggest President Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862, “so you’re the young woman who started this war.”
Stowe records that It was in Cincinnati when she first saw the auction place for the sell of slaves. She saw slaves wearing iron collars, and iron brackets around their ankles and wrists, all united by snake chains tying them to posts.
I personally held some of those shackles when I was at the Cincinnati Underground Railroad Museum. This is getting a little too close for comfort, I thought at the time. Then I heard the negro spiritual, Wade In The Water, which was a code song for runaway slaves to run through the streams to throw off the scent of pursuing hounds. As I stood listening to the song, my wife’s cousin, Donna, came up behind me and started singing along. Her voice was beautiful. How’d you know that song, I asked. Being from the middle of Ohio, she said, she grew up singing it in elementary school.
This is way too close emotionally, I said. My wife’s family are all from Missouri, Ohio, (and neighboring Kentucky). They’re Irish through and through. Maybe they were part of the Riot of 1829 where the Irish attacked the free negroes along the banks of the Ohio River, thinking they were taking jobs from them on the docks, canals, and railroads.
All the while Donna carries on with the song:
Wade in the water, wade in the water children,
wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.
. . . .
I thought I understood slavery. I didn’t, at least not until I understood the slave history of the midwest states of Missouri and Ohio. That’s where the mix of good and evil locked horns. I’ve been hearing of late from friends of mine that slaves were treated well by their owners. You reveal the dead spot in your soul by saying such a thing.
Ask Dred and Harriet Stowe, and Huck’s best friend, “nigger Jim”, if slavery was anything but hell.
Back in Hannibal, the real place of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn novels, I came across the white fence with a sign posted next to it saying this was the fence Tom tried to talk Jim into whitewashing.
By this time I’m hungry, so Cheri and I walk up the street to an oldies but goodies Missouri restaurant. I order a hamburger with a big white onion In the middle to kill the taste of a below average piece of ground round. From a radio, I could hear The Del-Vikings singing Come Go With Me. Four blacks and one white were in that group, which was unusual to have a mixed group during the 1950’s of rock n’ roll music. Never thought of that until I remembered Tom trying to talk ole Jim into whitewashing that fence. The year of that song was 1957. I grew up in Southern California and didn’t know anything about anything until I remembered reading about Tom trying to talk Jim into whitewashing that fence. Like Huck, Jim was a decent soul, but he was a slave, a slave Tom tried to get to do his work.
Cheri asks for my impressions:
Mark Twain wrote these momentous novels.
Novels of common kids doing common things in uncommon ways, in the language of their time, from their native region, revealing their culture that rivals dialog of the master himself, Shakespeare.
If you didn’t know, Missouri summers are stifling along the Mississippi River, and the days are redundant, the nights too, where the muddy Mississippi rolls by in the same way night and day, but where the genius of imagination created characters who were real to me. I loved Huck. Huck has always been my favorite. He was free, free as anyone could be along that wide and muddy Mississippi River.
Across the street, from my home in Long Beach, California, was a dirt canal where my buddies and I would compete with other neighborhood gangs in building the best underground forts, where we’d hide our candy, our flashlights, and camp out over night, only to be scared to the very brink of insanity when we’d hear the rustling of the canal’s weeds moving close. We’d exit our forts, running like rabbits to the safety of our homes.
That was before my parents had a pool put into our backyard, and I was forbidden to cross the street, and hide out with my gang of fifth graders. At that point I seemed to be leaving a Huck type adventurous life, but I never forgot him. And just think, I actually pressed my hands up against the header of his small, humble home. That was a moment of reverence.
Cheri and I returned to our comfortable hotel in Saint Louis after that journey, and my wife began to write.
She looked up and said how exciting it was to cross the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and to feel what Tom and Huck felt as they started out on their adventures.
We’re so lucky, she says. She’s stirred. I know when she’s swept away with joy. Her large eyes become like a child’s eyes, in awe of the simple beauties of a great river, of crossing a bridge, of walking along a shoreline and finding a small rock that might have mystery etched in it.
And me? I’m lucky I tagged along.
Just think, without her, I would have past the day away sleeping in that hotel bed.