Professor Pete ~ A Goodland County Story
By John Bolton
Clayton, Oklahoma 1934
Professor Pete and Stanley Peters rode the northbound into Goodland County on a gorgeous October afternoon. The steam whistle blew two shorts and long as the train slowed for the town of Clayton. The boys had no idea or immediate concern for where they were. They were both very drunk.
They were dangling their legs from an empty Morton Salt boxcar and Stan stood up to pee. The engineer hit the brakes, the box car lurched and Stan was hurled off the train. He landed on his right side and rolled. The roll came to an end and he started to laugh.
The professor witnessed Stan’s rise and fall. With a subdued, look on his round Swedish face he called out, “For every action there is a reaction.”
Professor Pete tossed down Stan’s gunny sack and his own ancient carpet bag. With their nearly empty hooch bottle in hand he scooted off the slow moving train. He landed badly, screamed in pain and collapsed to the ground. Flat on his back, he held up the bottle like a trophy and called back to Stan, “Didn’t break!”
Stan picked himself up, buttoned his trousers and walked up to Pete. He held out his hand, received the bottle, tipped it up, drained it and then smashed it on the track. “Now it did.”
Pete tried to get up and said, “Oof da, my durned ankle hurts.”
Pete put his arm over Stan’s shoulders and with his right ankle elevated, they hobbled off in search of refreshments.
Del Wright was the day deputy and took the call about two very drunk white men stumbling around the colored section picking up discarded cigarette and cigar butts. Del found them almost immediately. They were sitting on the front stoop of a small home. The scrawny one, Stan, was smoking and Professor Pete, a big, good looking man with whitish blonde hair was clumsily rolling a cigarette.
Del parked and ambled up to them. Professor Pete greeted him, “Good afternoon, ossifer. Care for a smoke?”
Del looked them over and saw a small pile of cigarette and cigar butts between them. He said, “No thanks. Are you fellers pickin’ up butts and rolling the tobacco into new smokes?”
Pete nodded sagely, belched and said, “Oof da. Yes ossifer. Waste not want not.”
“You been drinking?” Del asked.
Before Pete, the duo’s apparent spokesman could reply, Stan lurched to his feet, stepped off the porch and puked wretchedly and profusely into the flower bed.
Del said, “That is downright rude. I like petunias.”
Professor Pete said, “Oof da. Those are pansies, not petunias. And I apologize for my indisposed friend. We were drinking, but we’re done with that now. I’m sorry for any inconvenience.”
Del said, “Well, you’re drunk as skunks. I can put you in jail or you can mosey down the tracks and save the county the expense. And what the hell is oof da?”
Pete used the porch rail to get up gingerly and said, “Thank you, ossifer. We shall mosey. Oh, oof da is an expression up in Minnesota where I come from. It’s like ‘oh my’, or ‘good gracious’ or ‘oh shit’.”
Del said, “Oof da. You two best mosey. We don’t like people puking in the pansies.”
Stan and Pete hobbled a few steps with Pete using Stan as crutch. They both toppled to the dirt street. Pete lay on his back and told Del. “Ossifer, I fear I’ve injured my limb. Crippled my hind foot. Turned my ankle. I am in dire straights, sir and we are in fact, inebriated. Drunk. Besotted. Three sheets to the wind… Maybe four.”
Del squatted down and probed Pete’s ankle. He said, “Shit. I mean oofda. You got that front leg bone poking where it shouldn’t be poking. Above your ankle. Okay then. Pete’s goin’ to the doc. What’s the plan, Stan? You want to wait on the edge of town for Pete?”
“I don’t got no plan.” Never did.”
Pete said, “Stan needs to get on home to Topeka. His old gran is ill. It’s time we take divergent paths, my friend. Good luck to you, my boon companion.”
“Well gents,” said Del. It’s been entertainin’. Professor Pete, if you won’t puke in the car, I will carry you down to the doc’s.”
Del helped Dr. Koster by pulling strong and steady on Pete’s foot while the doc casted the ankle and lower leg. And surprise, surprise, Pete pulled a money clip from his pocket and paid the doc in full and still had a green back or two remaining in the clip.
“Now what Professor?” Del inquired.
Professor Pete sighed and said, “I could use a bath, a bed and a laundry. Is there a clean and inexpensive hotel nearby?”
Del and the doc exchanged knowing looks and Del said, “We have the finest hotel for miles around. At least for ten miles. I own it. I don’t know about clean, but it’s cheap. Can you get up a flight of stairs on those crutches?”
Del went down for breakfast the next day and was surprised to see the professor there with his cast propped up on a chair. He was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.
Del got a doughnut and pulled up a chair. “How’s the leg, Professor?”
“Oof da. It’s tiresome and throbbing. My first night in a bed in over a week and I could not sleep. I was going to try and catch a train, but I see a job here in the want ads. Deputy, can you direct me to the school?”
“Yes. They advertise for a part time Latin teacher and substitute teacher.”
“Chemistry is my specialty, but I can teach Latin. I hold a teaching certificate. I have it with me in fact.”
Del’s eyebrows raised in surprise and he said, “A Latin teaching hobo?”
“At your service.”
“Professor, I thought you were full of shit, but it turns out you’re full of surprises.”
“Oh deputy, I’m only full of shit when I drink. And I only drink when there is something in the bottle! No, I’m just joshing you. I’m a good teacher. And I’ll go easy on the drink if I get the job.”
There were a lot of good men on the tramp in the dirty thirties. Del had been on the road himself and he usually saw the good in people. But there was something about Pete Peterson that Del didn’t trust.
But Pete got the teaching job and stayed on at the Hotel Delroy though the teaching year. Del figured he’d do something like knock up the first grade teacher and abscond with the pay role.
Pete quit using the professor name. That was a hobo thing.
He was a teacher, but not a professor. Staff and students liked him and he fit in around town and the hotel too. And it seemed like before long everyone in town was saying, ‘Oof da.’
Pete stayed in Clayton for years. He married the algebra teacher, taught school, coached basketball and eventually became school principal. Del kept waiting for something scandalous to happen. But to his continued surprise, it never did.
The Hubcap Man’s Grave Site (A True story) By John Bolton
The hubcap man lived on a well kept farmstead in the rolling hills of western Iowa. What made his place stand out was the collection of chrome hubcaps wired to the barbwire fence that parallels the road in front of his house. I saw those hubcaps for years but didn’t know who lived there. In my imagination, it was an old guy with a sense of humor and an independence streak.
I finally met the hubcap man. I think it was the summer of 2010. He was younger than I had imagined, maybe mid sixties. He was likeable and did in fact have a sense of humor and an independent streak. And he was terminally ill. I’ve passed his place since that time and the hubcaps are still there and the farm stead is still neat and well kept. I wondered what became of him and supposed he had passed on.
On a nearly perfect fall day in later September of 2012, I was making the drive that would take me past his place. Farmers were in the fields with combines and grain wagons. About half the corn crop was harvested and some farmers were starting to combine the soybeans which had just made their autumn change from golden brown to dirty brown.
I wanted a break from driving and decided to stop at a pioneer cemetery which lays just up the hill from the hubcap man’s place. It was my first time there. I like history and old cemeteries. There were old graves and new. The oldest I saw was from 1850.
The cemetery is on a fairly steep hill and has a small timber on one side. It’s a pretty place with a view of the Boyer River valley. Near the top of the cemetery hill was a three foot tall jagged boulder. Something shiny at its base caught my eye and I walked up to it. At the foot of the boulder sat an unopened can of Bud Light beer and some new golf balls. A magic marker sat on the boulder and the boulder was covered with what I first thought was graffiti.
It wasn’t graffiti. I will call what was written on the boulder ‘tributes’. They said things like, “I love you, dad.” “We miss you.” “The corn crop sucks.”
I had never seen that done. I liked it. Then I looked at the headstone and realized it was the hubcap man. I stood at his grave site and looked toward his old home. I could clearly see it and the hubcaps along the fence.