Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks and what was once one of the prettiest little Southern squares you might ever see. I was gone a long time and missed the square when it fell on hard times and nearly got wiped out by urban renewal. I’ve been back a good spell now and have gotten the chance to watch it make a comeback. As a local historian and preservationist, I’ve been a little part of that rebirth. I’ve come back home – and I don’t plan on leaving again.
He was somewhere in Oklahoma now, probably still mad at the world and drinking as heavy as ever. But when he came down from Missouri into Elizabeth’s life he had been an exciting young bull, rough and tumble – a drinker, but exciting. Ten years later, he left with a gimpy leg and no future, a quarrelsome drunk.
“Go to hell,” he bellowed through the whiskey at his young, pregnant wife. “I’m sick of you tryin’ to hogtie me all the damn time. Let me be.”
He pushed her and the children aside and stormed out of the house not knowing how close she came to getting the shotgun down and using it. He never would know. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, he was too mad to be afraid of anything.
He’d always been that way, his whole life. The Missouri Ozarks were tough on poor Irish and with a mean old man and a hard-knuckled mother, he lit out as soon as he could. By thirteen, he was on the road, hitching all over, living on guts and luck. At fifteen, he had fought his way in and out of Texas and Oklahoma and into a precocious, thick-boned manhood.
Then in the second half of his twenties, he began to feel an urge to marry, to settle down. He stopped fighting so much, even cut down on his drinking. He’d been in enough cities to know he wanted a country girl, so he joined a group of migrant fruit pickers working their way through the midsection of the country.
Sure enough, in a remote, fertile vineyard in Northwest Arkansas he found her. Elizabeth Hill, fragile, vulnerable, picking grapes with her older sisters. She’d never seen a man so handsome and strong and worldly and he flattered and muscled his way into her child’s heart.
They got married that fall but almost from the moment of their vows he began to break them. He couldn’t keep a job and drug Elizabeth from place to place, barefoot and pregnant or nursing or all at once. She didn’t complain. There was still the love and he could be such a fine man when he tried.
And from time to time he did try, but by the third child he was drinking all the time, moving them from town to town for no reason. He treated Elizabeth badly. One minute he was insanely jealous of nothing, the next avowing his undying love.
Somehow they landed in downtown Kansas City, in an Irish ghetto. Here the end began. He seldom worked, spending most of his time in jail or fighting. And then he got beaten so severely in a brawl that he lost partial use of his left leg.
That only made him worse. He started seeing other women, disappeared for days at a time, leaving Elizabeth to fend for herself and the kids as best she could. One night she followed him to the bars and caught him with a gap-toothed barmaid.
Two days later, when he came staggering home, she was waiting. She slapped him hard and he went into a rage, tearing the house apart, sending the children scurrying in terror. Seeing the animal fear in her babies’ eyes was all it took for Elizabeth, and if he hadn’t stormed out the door and her life, swearing all the way, she absolutely would have shot him. Instead, she went back home. Her, the three little ones, and another one, a surprise, on the way.
Not quite a year later, he dropped back into the Ozarks out of nowhere. To see his new baby, he said. He brought a woman with him and Elizabeth grudgingly allowed them in her poor country home.
They only stayed long enough to get a good meal and wear out their welcome. They would be going to Springfield, he said, finally driving his bovine woman out of Elizabeth’s rocker and out to their truck. She could reach him up there if her and the kids ever needed any money, he told her.
She laughed about that. She sure wouldn’t hold her breath until it got there. With a sigh of relief, she walked them out of the yard and then watched silently as his beat up half-ton Ford pickup banged down the dirt road until it reached the highway, turned west, and disappeared around a bend. That was the last she heard of John Cassaday. It didn’t take long for her to be just fine with that.