A weathered wooden wagon, Turnbull by brand, creaked and groaned as it rolled up and coasted down the hills of the ill-kept country roads of central Oklahoma. The leisurely pace masked the effort of the two horses. They expelled misty vapors from their mouths like smoke from an old steam locomotive. The ice forming around their nostrils gave a painted-on appearance. It would be impossible to miss the fact that it was a winter night. Icy stars filled the cloudless sky overhead. The year was 1930. Along with winter, the initial stage of a sweeping economic depression added its chill to the frozen country and its inhabitants. Soon, a daunting mystery would supplement the chill.
Quakers…the wagon was loaded with my mother's family, the Carr's…they and their descendants were Quakers. However, that label and practice began to fade soon after leaving the Quaker area around Youngstown, Ohio for the 1893 Land Run in the unassigned Indian Lands (future Oklahoma). Add to this the fact about the Quaker sect of Gurneyites they were associated with was drifting toward the Methodist and Holiness Evangelical movements.
My great grandparents loaded the family on a train in August of '93 for the trip southwest into southern Kansas to await the opening. A family game plan was formulated whereby my great grandparents would travel by train the day of the opening as part of a retinue dedicated to the creation of a town site. The children led by my Grandpa, John Carr, the eldest, would follow the next day by train. That act sends a chill down the spine of parents living today. Children were given and accepted responsibility at a younger age in that period of history. Make no mistake, children were trained for that role. If you treat a twelve-year old like a child, that is the role they assume. If you train and treat a twelve-year old as an adult, they will amaze you. My great-grandparents were loving parents. I know through my grandfather that they never abused or mistreated their children. Today's parents would be shocked to see how well their children would thrive and deliver when treated to the honor of responsibility by adults. I could hear the pride in my grandfather's voice whenever he retold this part of the story to an interested ear.
At the train station the following day, it was utter chaos. Crowds of thousands waited to board a train with a capacity only in the hundreds. No seating would be available for several days for most of those waiting. Knowing as I do how my grandpa brought order out of this chaos, I understand why my great-grandfather, George Norman Carr, had faith in my grandfather's maturity and ability to see the children's journey to a safe conclusion.
After much discussion among the children, Grandpa gathered his five brothers and sisters together and commenced walking down the railroad tracks, Thirty-nine miles, to Tonkawa, Indian Territory. The troop of children arrived at Tonkawa Town site with a no-big-deal attitude according to every family retelling. Knowing my Grandfather, that is exactly the attitude he would have exhibited. He was quiet, yet, you knew he was in charge.
The Carr family acquired town-site land parcels in Tonkawa for speculation purposes. This was a common practice in the early days after each land run. A windfall came from the sale of those parcels. The profits went into purchasing many acres of new land in central Oklahoma Territory for ranching and farming purposes. Horses and land to pasture them on were the primary interest of the Carr's. Those items were the driving force behind their move to Indian Territory. A large part of the bottom land, soil near rivers and creeks rich with silt build-up from spring flooding, was earmarked for farming purposes. Farming was essential to feeding any rural family in the 1800's.
Prior to the move south into central Oklahoma Territory, my grandfather married Carrie Clark whose family had traveled in tandem with the Carr's to Indian Territory. The Carr's and Clark's would make the move south together. My great-grandfathers, Carr and Clark, and grandfather preceded the rest of the family to scout for ranch land.
The move south was completed with few tribulations worth mentioning other than that of the hard work required to relocate families and belongings the many miles to their destination. They struggled over land with no roads or bridges. Today, we take those luxuries for granted.
Surely, my grandparents were talented mathematicians for they multiplied with a brilliance that had few equals after settling onto the newly purchased lands.
The ever-multiplying Carr family conquered the land around them with enthusiasm. This was the land God had promised through their prayers. The family set about buying the land surrounding them as it became available. Over time, they acquired thousands of acres of ranch and farming land.
Horses were their prime interest. Quakers love their horses. Whenever a weekend get-together of neighbors and relatives occurred, you would find the men riding horses side by side. It was covert racing. Gambling was taboo in the family and illegal by law. I suspect it occurred on an under-the-table basis, to escape my Grandmother's devout eyes. I have been privy to many stories of betting the horses over the years. Yes, horse racing was an unofficial industry that unofficially flourished.
To fill the need for an accessible house of worship, the Carr's set about building a small nondenominational church for the surrounding community. Over the years, the church would hear many a sermon preached by my grandfather. I hear my grandfather's voice when I visit the church and sit in the pews. Next to the church, still standing and used to this day, a cemetery was platted. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother, my grandfather and grandmother, and many other Carr descendants are buried there.
Life was not idyllic, but neither was it drab. Before cell phones, computers, etc., you still needed entertainment to relieve the monotony of farm life where your nearest neighbor could be miles away. Items of modern technology like cars, electricity, and plumbing were little seen in the rural areas of this country in the thirties. The rural church was the hub of social life. Local families would make the arduous trek in open wagons to our family church in order to engage in social activities. A Carr family trek to church is the point at which this particular mystery begins.
Perched on the wagon's driver seat was my grandfather. Beside him sat two boys, twenty-two year old Uncle George and twenty-one year old Uncle Marion, covered with the same blanket as my grandfather. In the back were the balance of the eleven Carr children. Bundled in blankets, my grandmother told them stories or sang hymns. The youngest of the children were two spoiled twin girls; my mother, Leora Faye, and her sister, Leona Flossie. My mother was the younger of the two by 30 minutes. She liked everyone to know her position as the baby.
Actually, there are fifteen children. Four of the children, including another set of twin girls, died shortly after birth. Midwives handled deliveries. A doctor could be summoned, but the wait time could be hours considering the lack of communications. Birth was a peril-laden necessity.
Why the large family? One piece of the answer we find in the sphere of labor and its related expenses. Bluntly, children answered the need for a cheap labor force to assist in farming and ranching operations. Children could be that cheap, trusted, and loved labor source. In addition, children added a companionship that alleviated loneliness to a certain degree . The large family working together for the common good of all sounds cozy and idyllic. To a certain degree, yes, but, in reality, life on those farms and ranches was Spartan. Tedium and monotony could create a quandary for a teen feeling their hormones flowing or looking for adventure. Occasionally, to escape that tedium and monotony in rural life, children slipped quietly away to adventure in greener pastures. That adventure could take them away temporarily or forever. Some would never be seen or heard from again.
The fourth child of the surviving children was Ola. Her nickname was Olie. She had disappeared two months before. Everyone had their suspicions about her absence, but all their guesses were sheer speculation bordering on gossip. Naturally, fear and imagination had fueled that speculation. Communication was skimpy and slow in those isolated rural areas of Oklahoma during that period. Rarely did the area farms and ranches have phones, and, certainly, no cell phones existed. Therefore, any news of Olie, good or bad, was slow to get around.
Abruptly, the horse's heads jolted upward in unison. They fought the reins. Grandpa knew his horses. Splitting his eyes between the horses and the road ahead, he spoke quietly and calmly, "The horses picked up a scent of somethin'." In the cold still night, sounds and smells could be picked up over a greatly increased range.
With a wagon full of family, the situation could be dangerous if he lost control of the horses. Grandpa gently but authoritatively brought the horses back under his control while bringing the wagon to a stop. Exhaling a deep slow breath, he turned to George, "Take the reins, son. Keep 'em steady and calm. Don't need any runaways. Marion, ease down and take the halters…just in case."
Grandpa climbed slowly from the wagon. Reassuringly, he whispered to and patted the horses as he peered down the dark road. Something was there. He understood what they were trying to tell him.
Grandmother and the children packed around her filled with anticipation that bordered on fear coated with a sweet excitement. Bobcats and mountain lions were common, but unlikely to attack a group of this size. Of course, to an adventurous mind, the criminal element was a possibility in these tough times. Grandpa was of a practical bent and suspected something entirely different.
Grandpa walked about fifty yards down the road painted in tree shadows. George and Marion with their young eyes, kept their father in sight.
After several minutes, George whispered to those behind, "Dad's on his way back."
Grandpa walked to the horses and patted them. "George, keep a tight rein. Carrie, hand me that old saddle blanket behind you."
The all-business tone of Grandpa's voice set the mood. The children were whispering to each other as Grandmother handed the blanket to him, "John, do be careful, dear."
"The Lord is always with us, Mother. Our trust should be in him to protect us, not ourselves."
Turning around to George, Grandpa looked him in the eye, "Son, I'm gonna bring something back that is really gonna make the horses nervous. I know you can handle 'em, son." He patted George on the leg.
George picked up on the small nuances in Grandpa's actions and tones of voice. Those indicators pointed to a serious situation unfolding. Being the oldest, he was used to being called on in these types of situations. He was confident. That confidence emanated from his having spent his twenty-two years growing up with horses on the ranch.
With that, Grandpa disappeared once again into the dim starlit night to the area of his previous visit. The boys could vaguely make out his form bent over some mysterious unseen object.
The horses were stomping the ground nervously. Their heads toggled side to side. George aided by Marion worked diligently to keep the horses under control.
The minutes passed by like hours for the anxious people in the wagon. Their minds filled with macabre images from overly stimulated imaginations. Grandmother spoke reassuringly in comforting tones to the frightened younger children.
"Dad's headin' back," whispered George without turning his head. "Whatever it is he found, he's got it with him."
As Grandpa neared the wagon, he walked on the far side of the road to avoid passing directly in front of the horses. That being accomplished, he turned directly toward George and Marion, saying, "Slide over and let me put this under the seat."
The blanket wrapped object cradled in Grandpa's arms looked as though he was carrying a baby. He stored it gently under the wagon seat.
Climbing aboard, he took the reins from George and motioned Marion aboard. Directing the horses once again down the road, Grandpa, to take the edge off, said, "When we get to the church, I'll show everyone what I found. Till then, let's thank the Lord for all the blessings he has so lovingly and mercifully poured down upon us."
The wagon rumbled slowly into the church yard parking among the other wagons. As he halted the horses, Grandpa turned to those in back, "Mother, if you please, take the children inside. I'll have a short talk with Brother Bennett before I come in." In whispered commands to George and Marion, "You boys stay close to your mother and the children. I'm going to need both of you. I'll be in shortly."
Grandmother and the children joined other parishioners inside the church. All greeted one another and talked. The talk turned to the mysterious discovery on the road. By the time Grandpa, accompanied by Brother Bennett, entered, all in attendance were aware of the bundle.
Grandpa and Brother Bennett made their way to the communion table in front of the pulpit. Grandpa placed the bundle delicately upon the table. He and Brother Bennett looked at each other. Each taking a deep breath, they turned to the congregation.
"I guess all of you know I found this on the side of the road." After making that statement, Grandpa tilted his head upward saying, "Please, give us strength, Father."
Slowly, he began removing the sheet. Silence blanketed the sanctuary as all eyes stared at the bundle.
As the object was exposed, a heart-rending cry rang out from my Grandmother, "Oh my dear God in heaven, it's Olie!"
Indeed, it was a gruesome sight. The object was a human arm seperated from some unfortunate soul. Upon closer inspection in the light of the church, the arm appeared to onlookers as that of a female. The reaction of my Grandmother was a result of the horrible fears, imagined and real, bottled up inside her mind from Olie's absence.
"It's Olie's arm. Please, no, dear God!" With that Carrie fainted into George's arms. Other women in the congregation flocked to her side with their own wailing.
Pandemonium passed through the people like waves on the ocean. Grandpa and Brother Bennett had prepared themselves. Both men set to work calming everyone down. It was a most difficult task. Rewrapping the arm, Grandpa led the congregation in a long prayer for the unknown person associated with the arm. But…most felt…most knew it was Olie's arm. Didn't it look just like her arm…down to the last freckle?
The following days in the Carr family were black as night. Plans were made for burial of the arm. Grandmother was listless and subject to sudden outbursts of tears. Grandpa made every attempt to bring some light into the situation by reading uplifting verses from the Bible. It began to have its intended healing effect. At the same time, Grandpa knew a period of grieving was needed and healthy.
The funeral was held before a tremendous gathering. A small casket had been constructed for the arm. There was another outpouring of grief that day. After the eulogy, the tiny casket was buried next to the Carr babies that had not survived.
Several weeks passed after the funeral. The family was adjusting. Even my Grandmother was rebuilding her positive and delightful attitude. It was summer with the work of tending gardens, working hay fields, racing horses…hush your mouth. Busy minds level out and must heal quickly for survival.
Uncle George was a young man of routine. One part of that solid routine was a once per month trip into Norman for essentials. His sudden deviation from that routine combined with an uncharacteristic absent mindedness caused a rumor to begin circulating among the family. The rumor being that he had struck up an acquaintance with a girl in town. The younger siblings ribbed the shy George mercilessly. Poor George's memory that his mother used to brag about had fallen into disrepair. He constantly arrived home without the items that seemed so very important creating numerous additional journeys.
So, When George missed supper on this particular day, there wasn't much thought given to it. They were deep into the meal when George strode into the room wearing an ear to ear grin. He made himself even more conspicuous by standing there staring at everyone without saying anything for five minutes with the young ones giggling at each other.
Finally, Grandpa, without looking up, said, "Well, George, that grin's gonna stick that way unless you tell us what the lady's name is."
"You'll never guess in a million years."
The younger ones yelled in unison, "You got a girlfriend, Georgie!"
George wrinkled his face, "No, I ain't gettin' married. I'll put a whoopin' on the next person that says that. It ain't got anything to do with a girlfriend...not this one anyway. Well, I know you're not gonna guess it. So…look who I found!"
The room that had been a cacophony of laughter and talk stopped like it had run into a brick wall. From around the corner stepped a very shy and embarrassed Olie.
Everyone was speechless. But it was not just Olie. It was Olie with all her arms and legs attached.
My Grandmother stood up trembling and in a shaky voice said, "All glory to God for granting this family his boundless blessings of mercy. Come here my precious daughter."
At that, the cacophony resumed at a much higher level of intensity.
Needless to say, there was much celebrating and questioning in the house that evening. Olie had a lot of explaining to do, but the prodigal daughter was home and there was great joy. I'll just say this, Olie found life outside not as exciting as her imagination had painted it.
A considerable amount of time went by that evening before my very young Aunt Blanche asked the most important question, "Hey, Dad, whose arm did we bury?"
The conversation died as everyone stared at one another. That question from a six year old made everyone look as if they had been slapped hard in the face.
Sadly, nobody was able to solve this mystery. There was not a CSI Unit available in those times. The arm remains a family mystery and buried in the family cemetery, Marr's Hill, to this day. For my family, it was a good ending when George was contacted by Olie through a mutual friend, and, with help from her brother, she found the courage to return to the home she longed for.
Those were different times. As evidenced by losing four children shortly after birth as my Grandparents did, death was ever present and all too real. If one became too secure, too smug, a reminder of just how precious life really is would come along to remind you - like that arm alongside the road that night.