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November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.
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The next morning, after a fitful, sleepless night, as I was walking through the lobby on my way to the diner, BC looked up from behind the desk, then thrust a lumpy brown envelope into my hands. There were no stamps and no return address. Scrawled across the front of the envelope, in what looked like brown chalk, was “Reporter.” The printing had been done by someone old and arthritic. Or a kindergartner.

I asked BC where it had come from and he gave me the bad squirrel meat look again.

“No idea. It was leaning against the door this morning.”

When I opened it, a puff of dust floated out and settled on the counter, just missing my flapjacks. Inside I found a black, leather-bound notebook, 8 1/2 by 11, thin as a hymnal at a failing church. In faded red type, across the cover: “Oral Traditions and Folk Lore among the Early Settlers of the Missouri Ozarks.”

I read chapter one, The Weeping Woman, the tale of a gray-haired wraith in a nightgown who wandered the hollows and hillsides, pitifully calling for her baby, who had died from smallpox decades earlier. In chapter two, I met The Old Man of the Ozarks, a petty thief who was imprisoned for vagrancy and then, when the town jail was torn down as part of some ill-conceived urban renewal program, was promptly forgotten, and lived out his years trapped in the rubble, feeding only on rats and cockroaches and the occasional small child who got too close to the condemned property. I flipped through other ghost stories, skimmed legends, and read more nonsense of the sort that has brought shudders of delight to every kid who has ever spent a night at sleepover camp.

I passed the morning shoveling forkfuls of Bea’s excellent pancakes into my mouth, drinking her strong coffee and enjoying the exploits of The McDonald County Backbreaker, The Stranger at The Door, and The Man with the Hook. I met The James Strangler, the slithery and lithe creature who lurked at the bottom of the nearby James River, and wriggled and writhed until curious fishermen waded in after it–only to be found later washed up on the shore, terror in their empty, staring eyes (in some versions of the tale, their brains had been sucked out through the ears).

As I mopped up syrup, I chuckled and felt myself relax. The missing kid from Eureka Springs was sad, of course, tragic even, but it wasn’t my job to find him. My role was simply to write something evocative. If there’s one thing an animal beat guy needs to be good at, it’s evocative. These stories from this odd little book would help.

I was going to give the Tribune readers a mood piece, all right. I would etch some portraits of BC, and Beatrice the sexy waitress, and certainly the whackjob of a librarian. I’d throw in The Old Man of the Ozarks, too. I would describe the knotty-pine walls (or maple, or whatever they turned out to be). I would leave out the bloody meat in the ashes, and the crying I heard in the woods at night, because no one would believe that stuff. Plus, for the purposes of authorial credibility, I needed to maintain a certain flinty-eyed persona. So definitely no huh-huh-huhs. But mood? Oh, yeah. With a capital M.

I returned to the book, read in the afterward how tall tales had been part of the Ozarks culture for as long as anyone could remember, how “these tales have been handed down for generations, used as instructional devices to impart lessons about human nature and to dissuade children from socially unacceptable and risky activity.”

I asked Bea for more coffee. The spooky yarn as pedagogy? Interesting. I sped through the stories again. The weeping woman wasn’t just a scary old hag; she provided a cautionary example of what happened to someone who failed to come to terms with grief, who could not let go of a loved one who had died. The Old Man of the Ozarks? More than a crotchety old cannibal, he was the bogeyman who kept kids from deserted buildings. And any little boy or girl who heard about The James Strangler would surely not get too close to the river’s edge.

I was composing the lede in my head–”If you want a long life for your kids, you might consider scaring the wee ones to death”–when I noticed something sticking out of the back of the book. It was a single sheet of single-spaced paper, yellowed and crackling. Typed across the top of the sheet, “The Curious and Disturbing Case of Ukiah Clemons.”

I read it while I drank more coffee. The story was different from the others. It read more like a police report than a tall tale. There was no obvious anthropological value in the text. And, according to the property records attached, there definitively was a Ukiah Clemons. He was the fourth oldest of eight, the son of a blacksmith. By the only accounts that could be trusted–and there weren’t many of those–the Clemons family was, like many rural Missouri clans of that era, poor and fiercely, desperately invested in survival. The blacksmith was a moonshiner and drunk who barely made ends meet.

His wife was high-strung, prone to long bouts of silence interrupted by episodes of screaming and minor violence, always directed at one child or another. There was chronic sickness and relentless hunger. Young Ukiah was a lonely child, and other schoolchildren shunned him. It might have been because he tended to cling to his mother’s skirts, or because he wept easily. It might have been because he was always so hungry; other children reported seeing him in the woods at all hours, digging in the dirt, at times chewing on wriggling, squealing things that looked like squirrels, or snakes he hadn’t even bothered to kill. People said that when Ukiah’s father discovered the boy eating a snake in bed one night, he tied him to a tree and used his bullwhip. After that night, people said, Ukiah stuttered. He stuttered until the day he disappeared.

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