Hero

 

Nearly every road in the state of Iowa runs either east and west or north and south.  But, sometimes an old stagecoach trail followed a river or traced a level contour around a hill and years later the trail became a road or highway that was an exception to Iowa’s checkerboard of one mile by one mile squares of farmland.

Some superstitious citizens of the state of Iowa will not build a house whose walls do not lie in north-south and east-west directions.

“It’s bad luck.  God don’t want walls going in crooked directions.”

The Madison to Adamsville spur line leaves the Illinois Central Railroad tracks at Madison and heads northwest through a bunch of small towns.  Each town has a siding to drop off car loads of coal and pick up grain cars full of Iowa corn.

My friend, Gerald Gardner, and me got  some day jobs unloading some of those coal cars.  A lot of them were loaded with big shiny-black chunks of the heavy fuel.  Some of the pieces were the size of couch pillows only a whole lot heavier.  Gerald and me could barely lift those big pieces of coal and we had to heave each chunk over the side of the car where it slid down the chute that lead to the bin in the basement of Kelsey’s Elevator and Grain Company.  When we got near the bottom of the car we had to lift them fifty pound chunks over our heads to throw them onto the coal chute.  Gerald and me decided that working as a team made sense.  We’d each grab an end and lift that hunk of coal and swing it into the chute in one fell-swoop.

Some of the coal cars contained stoker coal.  Stoker coal was small pieces of coal just a bit bigger than the charcoal people use in barbecue grills.  Kelsey’s sold it to businesses and rich people who loaded it in a bin and used a feeder belt to keep it coming into the furnace all night long.  It seemed like the modern, efficient way to burn coal.   Gerald and me would use coal scoops to throw the flat, tennis ball sized pieces of coal on the chute.  Later we’d go down in the dusty pit with bandana’s over our faces like western outlaws and we’d move our pile of coal to the edges of the bin so we could go back up to the coal car and have room to start all over again.  Unloading a car full of stoker coal also made us real strong.

We was getting a buck and a half an hour, but the best part of the job was we was building muscles and strong backs that made us both all-conference linemen on Claysville’s conference champion football team.

Gerald was left guard and I was left tackle and we’d get in the huddle and I’d tell Cass Evert, our quarterback, “You just call a running play around the left side.  Gerald and I will make a hole.”

Nobody we played was as tough as the two coal men on the left side of the Claysville line.

I was telling you about the railroad and the crooked streets in Claysville.  The Madison to Adamsville or M & A Spur Railroad cuts the town of Claysville in two from the southeast to the northwest.  I lived in the third of the town on the southwest corner.  Most people would say I was from the wrong side of the tracks.

Gerald grew up on the rich side of the tracks.  His dad was a banker.  Gerald used his coal money to buy gas for the ‘57 Chevy his dad bought him when Gerald got his license.  Gas cost about 20 cents a gallon.  He could fill up his tank and drive a couple of weeks with two hours pay from unloading coal.

I used half of my pay for stuff I needed for school.  The rest went into our family’s grocery fund.  It took a lot to feed Ma and me and my two little sisters.  Karla was twelve, Konnie was five, and I was seventeen.  My name is Karl.  Karl Kline.  Mom was Sara Kline and pa was Evert Kline.  We did pretty well until I was twelve and Pa fell off a grain elevator he was building.  He was pretty busted up, but he lived for a week.  He knew he was going to die and he told me, “Karl, you will be the man of the house when I am gone.  You’re going to have to work really hard to take care of this family.  I know you’ll do that.  Always remember that I want you to get a good education too.  You go to class, pay attention, and study harder than anyone else.  I’ll be watching, even though I’ll be dead.  I’ll be watching you in sports too.  You are good at baseball and basketball and I think you’ll be a football player, too.  You work hard and have fun and make me proud, Karl.”

I started to argue.  I started to say, “You ain’t going to die, Pa,” but Pa, he put his finger to my lips and shook his head.  I didn’t say no more and neither did he.

Them was the last words I heard him say.

After Pa told me all of that on his death-bed, I didn’t have much choice.  I had to work to support my family, study to be a great student, and give my best to becoming a good athlete.  I had to make Pa proud.  I knew he’d be watching me.

You might notice that my English ain’t perfect.  That’s one of my goals for my senior year.  I’m taking fourth year English and my grammar is getting better, but I still have a ways to go.  I’d like to go to college.  I’d have to get a scholarship and a bunch of loans, but dad would be proud if he looked down someday and saw me walking across a stage with my college degree.

I was telling you about the railroad and the crooked streets of Claysville.  The roads beside the M & A Spur RR run parallel to the railroad tracks.  We lived in a two bedroom house on Railroad Street on the south edge of town.  Our house was a poor person’s house on the “other side of the tracks.”  Ma had a bedroom, the girls shared a bedroom, and I had a room in the basement with a folding bed.  We had an oak kitchen table with a leaf that stayed in it all the time.  In our living room we had an old worn couch, an easy chair, a rocker, a wooden coffee table, and an end table.  The room was full.  There was almost no space for people.

Our old house was up on the hill in the good side of town.  When Pa was killed, Ma couldn’t keep up the payments so she sold the big house and bought our little place on Railroad Street.  The new house included about three acres of ground.  It had space for chickens for eggs and meat, a couple of pigs that thought they was pet dogs, a cow that kept us in milk and calves that we raised for beef.  We didn’t have to buy a lot of groceries.  Ma canned lots of our vegetables and fruit that neighbors shared with us.

On the north side of the tracks, Oiley Street ran parallel to the tracks and to Railroad Street.  The other streets in town ran either north and south or east and west.  When they hit Oiley Street, they made strange-shaped blocks.  Many of the city blocks were trapezoids and some were just triangles.

The block formed by Oiley and Brown and Grant streets formed a right triangle.  The acute angles of this triangle were about 50 degrees and 40 degrees.  At the corner of Oiley and Grant a tall pole held a shield-shaped sign that said, “PHILLIPS 66.”  A sign along the front of the building said, “Harmon’s Phillips 66 Service.”  The front of the station had a wooden frame overhead door and a red brick section with a door leading into the office.

My friend, Kenny Lange, worked there after school except during basketball season.  Kenny pumped gas, washed car windows, checked oil, and took money for gas.  On the basketball court Kenny was a shooter.  He never saw a shot he didn’t like.  I saw him drain a hook shot from the other team’s free throw line in the last second of the first quarter against Beaman.  He could pass, too.  If the other team had him covered he would hit me in the post with a pass so perfect that I could just take one step and lay the ball in the basket.

Kenny had two sisters.  Jackie was my age and Bonnie was two years younger.  The Lange kids liked to swim.  One day, several of us guys were down at the creek swimming at the BBB.  BBB is our acronym for Bare Butt Beach.  When Jackie and Bonnie and Nadine Zimmerman showed up.  They saw our pants lying on the bank  so they tried to get us to come out of the water.

“We won’t look,” they promised.

The girls had on swimming suits and they swam for a while and teased us a lot before they headed home.  We felt lucky that they didn’t take our pants with them.

Jackie was nice, but she was kind of fat.  Bonnie was slender and strong and she was a great basketball player.  She liked to challenge herself to join the guys in pickup games.  She held her own with her basketball skills.  Besides, we liked to guard her really close.

Sometimes, on a hot summer day a bunch of us swam at the gravel pit north of town.  Bonnie and I got involved in a game of tag one day.  As other people left it developed into just a two person game.  She tried to shove me under and then swim away.  She was a good swimmer, but I was better.  I could always catch her and shove or pull her under the water.  I was sure to hold on to make sure she got to the surface again.  The water was twenty feet deep and I didn’t want anything to happen to her.  I was beginning to like her a lot.  I think Bonnie and I had something good going on between us.  My problem was I didn’t have any money to spend on girls.  Any money I got went for food, school, and savings for college.  It would be a long time before I’d see any extra cash for a girl friend.

You know about my town, you know about me, and you know about my friends.    This whole story is about my trip to school one day along Oiley Street past Harmon’s 66 Station.

I was late for school.  I was very late for school.  The day before had been the first basketball practice of my senior year at Claysville High School.  Football should have left me in top shape, but a hundred laps and a hundred line drills had left me drained.  I don’t even remember taking a shot after warm-up drills.  That night I did my homework and went to bed.

When I woke up my temperature was over 103 degrees and I felt really sick.  Ma wouldn’t let me go to school.  I slept until ten and took my temperature again.  Ma was at work so I figured 100.2 was close enough to normal.  I had already missed physics and English classes.  I ate some milk-toast and headed over the tracks and up Oiley Street past Harmon’s 66.  I was carrying my gym bag with clean shorts, a shirt, and socks for basketball practice and my algebra book.

Oiley Street headed northwest and passed another triangular city block.  This was filled with the Claysville Carnegie Library.  We were proud of the library.  It was a beautiful brick building that curved along the long hypotenuse of the triangular block.  It contained the best selection of fiction and reference books of any library around.  We felt lucky to have it in Claysville.  Us people from the other side of the tracks couldn’t afford to buy books so having a great library was wonderful.  I spent a lot of my free time there.

I passed Harmon’s and headed up Oiley Street toward the library.  As I turned up Grant Street I noticed something strange.  A pickup truck was parked across the street from the library.  There was a guy sitting in the forest green ‘49 Chevy.  He was writing on a clipboard and looking at the Claysville State Bank building across Grant Street from the library.  My first thought was, “This guy is a bank robber.”  I glanced at his license to see if he was a local.  The plate was smeared with mud.  I couldn’t even see the county number.  Several banks had been robbed around Iowa and southern Minnesota during the past six months.  Something told me, “This might be the guy.”

Before I got even with his truck, his door opened and a young man got out of the truck.  He was six foot tall and weighed about 210 pounds.  I was six foot three and weighed a solid 220.  The guy had curly blondish hair like you get if you’ve been out in the sun a lot.  He walked toward the bank.

I was even with the library when the robber turned the corner, I turned and jogged back to his pickup.  I pulled a bunch of rough weeds and rubbed some mud off his rear plate.  It read 77-2408.  I wrote the number on my algebra notebook.

I thought, “This guy is from Polk county.  77 is the code for Iowa’s capital county.  He’s a bank robber for sure.  I’m getting the town cop.  I’m turning this guy in.”

Karl Kline was about to solve the series of small town bank robberies.  I stuck out my chest a bit.  I was going to be a hero.

Then the bank alarm began to blare.  It was so close and so loud.  It seemed to be coming from the inside of my head.

Suddenly, the young blond guy came running around the corner of the bank onto Grant Street.  He was headed for his pickup and ignoring me.  This robber was not going to escape.  I imagined he was a running back from Madison.  I dropped my bag and launched myself.  It might have been the finest open field tackle I have ever made.  I hit him waist high and he went down hard.

I didn’t see it coming.  I was on top and in control when his fist hit me in the mouth.  My teeth cut deep into my lips and I tasted my blood.  I almost cried out with pain.  Then I was on my back and the bank robber had a gun in my face.  He was going to kill me.

“Maybe the cops will come and save me.  At least I’ll be a hero for stopping him,” I thought.

“One move and you’re dead.”

I didn’t even breathe.

The robber slowly stood. His pistol was pointed at my body.  His hand was steady.  He couldn’t miss.

“You are under arrest kid.  You helped your partner escape, but we’ve got you and we have ways to get you to tell us about your buddy.  The easy way for you is to finger your partner right now.  Who is he?  Where does he live?”

I stammered.  “I … I thought you was a bank robber.   I was sick and I’m late for school.  I saw you sitting in your pickup and got suspicious.  I wrote down your license number and when I saw you running, I tried to be a hero.”

I looked up when I saw the flash of Herald Jenson’s camera.  Harold was editor of the Claysville Herald.  He just took my picture.  I was going to be famous.

Friday’s paper had my picture on the front page.  The headlines read, “Local Star Athlete Tackles FBI Agent.  Foils Capture of Bank Robber.”

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