town marshal

Lost letters file: Loyal pets, dead bodies and severe wardrobe malfunctions

Although my parents intended to save every entertaining letter from Grandma, it was inevitable they’d lose some along the way. Really, the number of letters that did survive is remarkable considering our five relocations during those three letter-writing decades. Despite the lost letters, we have managed to keep some of their stories alive.

Grandma’s most notorious lost letter was one she wrote in the early 1960s. The letter arrived in the middle of the summer, and it told about the death of a local farmer. He was a widower and, other than his faithful dog, he lived alone on his farm. While working out in the field one hot summer day, the elderly farmer had a heart attack and died instantly. Several days passed before anyone missed him.

Finally, some neighbors stopped by his farmhouse. No one answered the door, but as the neighbors were leaving, they noticed in the field the farmer’s dog lying next to what they suspected was the farmer’s body. They walked out into the field to investigate but when they got close, the large dog sprang up, growling and baring its teeth to the approaching group. It wasn’t about to allow anyone near its fallen master. After several failed attempts to distract or scare the dog away, the neighbors decided it was a job for the marshal.

When Grandpa arrived, he quickly determined the only solution was to tranquilize the dog. A local veterinarian supplied a dose of sedative that Grandpa added to a handful of raw hamburger. After tossing the juiced ball of meat out to the dog, Grandpa and his posse waited under a shade tree near the farmhouse. A few minutes after wolfing down the medicated meatball, the dog collapsed into a deep sleep, and the men began the grim duty of removing the farmer’s body.

This is where the letter got interesting.

Although Grandma wasn’t there, she painted a vivid written portrait of the scene based only on Grandpa’s account. After lying in the blistering 90-degree sun for several days, the farmer’s body was in a severe state of decomposition. Grandma didn’t hold back: She wrote about the swarm of flies and other winged insects the men had to fight through to get to the remains. She told about how maggots and other creepy-crawlies had quickly inhabited the bloated corpse, particularly in its eyes and gaping mouth. She described how they shoveled the farmer part by part into a body bag. And she brought to powerful life the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh.

Mom read this letter to some family friends shortly after it arrived. At the maggots-in-the-eyes-and-mouth point, our friend’s 10-year-old daughter began dry heaving. At the stench-of-rotting-flesh point, she jumped up, ran into the bathroom … and garped in the pot.

Most writers try to elicit emotional responses from their readers. If causing someone to puke counts as an emotional response, Grandma could have been Hemingway in an alternate bizarro universe.

Several years ago, I put out a call to all relatives to scour their homes in the hopes of discovering some of Grandma’s lost letters. Nothing significant turned up, but my mom and Aunt Mae did have interesting replies with letters of their own.

Both told about an incident that happened when they were in their late teens/early 20s. Although Mom and Aunt Mae wrote to me independently, they told the same story nearly word for word. That might seem uncanny, but for anyone who knows Mae and Maudie, it’s no surprise.

Aunt Mae and Mom in mid-gab, 1991

Aunt Mae and Mom take a mid-gab breather, 1991

Born 16 months apart, they’ve often been mistaken for twins – not so much for their physical resemblance, but for the way they communicate on a level no one dares ascend (or descend) to.

To the listener, Mom and Aunt Mae’s verbal exchanges probably sound like the conversational equivalents of the blind leading the blind, but somehow they magically understand each other. It’s as if they share one brain … which means they each use only half at a time … which seems about right.

Here’s a compilation of Mom and Aunt Mae’s letters about an eventful shopping trip in the late 1940s. Grandma may not have written this, but coming from the next generation of letter writers is a close second:

We were shopping in Valparaiso with Mom and our nephew Steve, who was about 5 years old at the time. Everyone knows Mom never wore underpants unless she was going out of town.

We were walking down a busy street, and just as we were in front of a big store window, Mom felt something falling. Lo’ and behold, it was her underpants! The elastic band broke and they fell to the ground right in front of a crowded department store.

We kept walking as if we didn’t know her, but little Stevie stayed with her. She stepped out of her undies, and Stevie picked them up and carried them as they went into an office building’s stairwell to fix them.

We were in the doghouse for a long time after that.

For the record, I didn’t know about Grandma’s underwear-wearing policy, which is fine – I think it’s best I didn’t.

Advertisements

‘Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville …’

Marshal Lowry

Grandpa served Medaryville, Indiana, as its marshal and jack-of-all-trades for 20 years. Before that, he’d been a farmer and had worked in area factories, including an ordnance plant during World War II. I was 3 years old when he retired in 1965, so the only occupation I remember him having was as a full-time grandpa. But being married to Grandma meant he was often on the receiving end of her many practical jokes. Therefore, “Victim” was another job title he frequently found thrust on him.

Although Grandpa was also a prankster, he couldn’t match Grandma’s outsized efforts. For him, these Grandma-engineered practical jokes sound especially impractical:

  • After a hard day at work, Grandpa asked Grandma whether she’d massage his back and shoulders with a hot liniment. She agreed, so he stripped to his underpants, laid on the bed, and Grandma started working the liniment into his aching muscles. Just as she was finishing, she pulled down the back of his shorts and slapped a handful of the fiery product on “his boys.” Grandpa got to know an ice bag intimately the rest of the night.
  • For a short time, when Grandpa was working a late shift, he would come home and sneak into the bedroom without waking Grandma, quietly change his clothes, jump as high as he could and belly flop on the bed, startling Grandma out of a deep sleep. It didn’t take her long to fix this behavior. A few nights later, Grandpa came home and began his routine: He tiptoed into the dark bedroom, slipped out of his clothes and into his pajamas, leaped into the air … and landed face first on the bedroom floor. Grandma had moved the bed over a few feet before she’d turned in for the night.
  • On one of the first pleasant spring days in the late 1930s, Grandma and Grandpa decided to take the family on a picnic. Grandpa had to run some errands in town before they left, but he promised he’d be back in a few minutes. So Grandma got the kids dressed and ready to go, filled the picnic baskets with food and waited for his return. Nearly two hours later, Grandpa stumbled through the front door, took a quick look at his furious wife and, without saying a word, plopped onto the couch and passed out. While in town, some friends had intercepted Grandpa and, with little effort, persuaded him to have a couple quick drinks with them at the tavern before he headed back home. A couple of drinks became several, and they hadn’t been very quick. Grandma’s response? She found some rope and hogtied a still-passed-out Grandpa to the couch. She took the kids on the picnic and left him tied up for the rest of the day.

Yes, Grandma usually had the advantage with Grandpa, but perhaps he was just born to be an easy target. Some evidence for this was there well before he and Grandma married. As a youth, Grandpa once fell for the old snipe-hunting ruse. In this case, the quest was for “ring-tailed” snipe. After ditching him out in the country holding a burlap bag under a tree, Grandpa’s tormentors sneaked back to town and waited for his return. Their wait was longer than usual for this gag, but eventually they spotted him trudging back with his empty burlap bag – no ring-tailed snipes. His “friends” got a good laugh at Grandpa’s expense, but they also were impressed with his snipe-hunting determination. They quickly christened him “Ring,” and that nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

Grandpa apparently learned a thing or two from his snipe-hunting experience and years of Grandma keeping him on his toes: As town marshal, he once earned another nickname and some notoriety for being diligent and as determined of a lawman as he was a snipe hunter. People began referring to him as “the pajama-wearing policeman” after this story hit the newsstands:

Chicago Sun-Times, Monday, June 10, 1957

A town marshal catches two after 70-mile chase

Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville, a hamlet in Pulaski County, Indiana, 70 miles southeast of Hammond. But Ogle Lowry, the town marshal, proved yesterday his alertness during a disturbance of the peace.

His peace was disturbed at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from Dewey Wayne, owner of a garage and filling station. Suspicious hammering had awakened Wayne in his home next door to the garage.

The marshal rushes

Lowry pulled on a pair of pants over his pajamas, leaped into a motor truck, and reached the garage in time to see two men emerge and drive away.

Lowry raced after them. The night chase – at 80 miles an hour – led through Gary, Indiana Harbor, East Chicago and finally into Hammond.

There the fugitives stopped for a traffic light and Lowry, pulling up alongside, drew his gun on them.

Ex-vets charged

At the police station, his captives identified themselves as former servicemen, both from Hammond. Earlier in the day, they had held up a rural movie theater and obtained $165. Police found this and $126 taken from Wayne’s safe in a paper bag under a seat of their car. They also found a loaded gun.

Over the years, family lore has varied the amount of non-pajama clothing Grandpa was really wearing at the time of the arrest, and I doubt the long-lost letter from Grandma that accompanied the newspaper clipping added much verifiable clarity. But I am sure that when Grandpa returned home that night, he didn’t request a hot liniment massage.