When I first met Merle C. Coon on Feb. 5, 1955, he was 47 and I was 16 years old. He was sitting in a green upholstered chair, dressed in clean overalls, a blue work shirt, wearing brown house slippers, reading the Peoria Journal Star, and smoking a Camel cigarette. His most striking feature, however, was his fresh butch-style hair cut, as flat as a fritter, his hair standing straight up, thanks to his barber’s hair wax.
Before I met him that day, Merle had probably been working in the barn that afternoon, filling the feed bunks with hay for the cattle, throwing some corn out for the chickens, and filling some metal pans with ground feed for the hogs. He was a kind man, treating his animals with respect, trying to keep them warm at this brutal time of the year. He was not a “big operator” with hundreds of acres to till, thousands of chickens to raise, or the latest equipment to do the work, just a small tenant farmer who did things much as his father had done, satisfied with making a modest living for his family of six children, four boys and two girls. Afterwards, near supper time, he headed for the house where he put his dirty work shoes on the back steps, stuck his blue denim coat on a peg and headed for the tub at the back of the house, the process both routine and methodical.
Supper over, he was sitting in the living room, reading the paper, waiting for me to arrive. On a matching couch was Merle’s youngest son, John, a pudgy eight-year-old with a broad smile behind thick lenses, wearing Superman pajamas, probably his only attire all day.
Although he was middle-aged, I was stuck by Merle’s youthfulness, his hair faintly gray around the temples, his waistline like that of a teenager. We were cordial but said little, not that we couldn’t talk on many subjects, but we were looking each other over. He was probably wondering how I would treat his fifteen-year-old daughter, Nancy, on a first date, and I wondering how he felt about letting his daughter go out with me in a new car. Frankly, it wasn’t just a new car; it was a pink and white 1954 Ford two-door hardtop with white sidewall tires, fender skirts, and a fake spare tire on the trunk. The interior seats, made of plastic to look like leather, were pink and white; even the dash was a shiny white enamel. I said nothing about the car, hoping he didn’t follow us out the door or watch through the window until we got down the road.
Later that night, when he crawled into bed about ten with Edith, his wife, she probably asked, “Well, what was your impression?”
“He’s Ok. Don’t know whether we’ll see him again or not.”
Nancy and I went to see “Three Coins in a Fountain,” in Peoria, probably at the Madison or the Palace Theater stopping at Hunt’s Drive-in for a chocolate soda or a hot fudge sundae, before heading west on Route 8. It wasn’t terribly cold, but the snow was coming down pretty good so I drove slowly to Oak Hill, turning carefully on Luthy Road, going cautiously down the hill and up, skidding just a bit as we passed the Vohland farm. As I turned into the Coon barnyard, I could feel the slush under my tires, but I was pleased that we had arrived without any mishap, parking close to the back door so that Nancy would not have far to walk.
I looked at my watch: 12:30. Since it was a first date, we were practically strangers, no one had mentioned a curfew and the weather was bad, so the next step was fairly obvious. It was time to leave before it became any worse. I opened the door for Nancy and walked her to the back door. After we said goodnight, she closed the door, and I headed to my car. When I turned the wheel so I could avoid backing out on Luthy Road, I found the ground was so soft that I couldn’t get any traction. I tried turning the wheel the other way and rocking the car, but I had no luck, everything I did putting the car deeper into a rut. The kitchen lights went on at 12:45. Five or ten minutes later, Merle came out the basement door and headed for my car window. There was no shouting. There was no remark about how to improve my driving – not even how late it was. Very calmly he said, “I’ll get my tractor and pull you out.”
Two or three weeks later, I was sitting in Merle’s barnyard, again at midnight or later, waiting for him to pull me out of the mud for the second time. When I got home, I told my Dad about how calmly Merle reacted to both situations. Dad asked, “Does he smoke?” When I nodded yes, I was encouraged to pick up a carton of Camels at the store for Merle’s troubles.
The next time I saw Merle – a few weeks or months later – he was dressed in a sport shirt and dress trousers, sitting at the dinner table on a Sunday after church, not necessarily at the head of the table, but wherever there was an open spot. The dining room in his farm house had a fairly large dining table, but when the entire family – with boy and girlfriends – was there for dinner, the dining table was not large enough to handle everyone. A couple of card tables were added in the living room. With that kind of arrangement, no part of the table could be described as the head. Merle, without any sense of pretense, sat wherever he could find a place to eat and to talk, two of his favorite things to do.
While Merle and the boys set up the tables and the chairs, Edith and Mary Ann did most of the cooking – Edith frying the chicken, making luscious homemade rolls and baking chocolate cakes; Mary Ann boiling the potatoes and vegetables; and Nancy setting the tables. Meanwhile Merle was with the boy and girlfriends, the perfect host making everyone feel at home. One would never guess that he had not graduated from high school, having decided to work with his father on the farm so others could finish high school or go to college. And he would never acknowledge that he was as bright and intelligent as anyone who sat at his dining room table. Although his book knowledge of ancient times or higher math and science might be lacking, he could carry on an intelligent conversation with any person he ever met, based on good common sense. Although he may not have known exactly how the world worked, he had a pretty good idea.
I don’t recall that Merle gave the blessing at the beginning of any family meal, but he certainly didn’t discourage anyone from beginning the meal with prayer. Although Merle had attended church, I never heard him speak of religion, but I suspect he was a spiritual person who had little interest in religion or who did not expect God to give him a multiple choice test on the Bible when he reached Heaven. He stopped attending church regularly after his mother was killed needlessly by a “religious” person who never expressed regret for the life he took driving recklessly. During the meal, Merle talked some, but listened a great deal, learning from those who had gone on to college and who benefitted from his working to pay for their education. Once dinner was over, Merle and the boys helped clear the tables so the dishes could be washed – one person washing dishes and several wiping them with dish towels often made from old feed sacks. The dinner dishes were never piled up on the sink in the kitchen, waiting for Edith to finish herself when all had left. Once the men had arranged the furniture, Merle sat like a cat waiting to pounce, not on a mouse, but on a deck of playing cards for any number of games – eucher, buck eucher, or pinochle, even black jack for a penny or two.
Merle enjoyed playing all kinds of card games, not just to pass the time of day, but specifically to beat his wife at cards or anything else for that matter. When he won, he tried to keep a sober face, but he had a hard time from smiling sheepishly when he beat his wife. I think he genuinely relished beating someone who had more schooling than he did, but who may not have been blessed with his street smarts. Merle was every bit as smart as she was and certainly more willing to take careful risks to improve their lot. He must have talked long and hard to convince his wife to allow him to cash in a paid-up life insurance policy to buy the family farm from his brother. If the facts were ever revealed, Edith probably told Merle that he was crazy, but he did what he thought was right. He was a bit of a gambler, she was not. Financially, it was the smartest move he ever made.
Although I remember Merle reading in his chair or eating at the dining room table, I remember him most fondly on his hands and knees on the living room floor, sometimes in his overalls, sometimes in his good slacks, playing with his grandkids. In the background I can remember, Edith warning, “Merle, remember you’re in your good clothes,” chiding him like a teenager, forgetting that loving grandkids was one of his special talents. I can see him now, sitting on the floor, his back against a chair or sofa, throwing a ball across the floor to Mark or Brenda or Barbara. Picture a grown man in his mid-sixties, holding a toy doll in his arms, talking to it, as well as to Denise and Andrea, his granddaughters. Years ago, he would pick up Brian and David, one in each arm, and take them out to his old tractor. Merle would stand below them, letting first one, then the other, drive the silent, motionless tractor in the barnyard. At other times, he would take the kids by the hand, walking them to the pasture where he would point out a brown squirrel or a blue bird, or an old bridge now fallen into the creek. The kids would form a line, walking hand in hand on a fallen tree limb, Merle holding their hands so no one would fall. Here was a sixty-year-old kid, helping his grandkids explore the farm that had meant so much to the Coon family for generations.
When I last saw Merle in March 1992, he was 84, I was 53 years old. He was sitting up in a hospital bed in Rosewood Nursing Home in East Peoria, a patient there for several weeks, suffering from some kind of internal bleeding disorder, requiring frequent blood transfusions. He still had a butch hair cut, but without his barber’s wax, his hair did not stand up straight. He had given up smoking Camels years before. He looked so good it was difficult to understand his physician’s prognosis, “Eventually, we will have to discontinue the blood transfusions; they are no longer working.”
We talked as we always talked, about farming, world affairs and such, nothing controversial, nothing deep, nothing spiritual. We could have talked about many subjects, but I let him lead the way, and that of course led to his favorite subject, his grandkids — what they were doing, how they were doing. When I brought him up to date, he’d smile and laugh and remember something about them from the past. When it was time to go, I said goodbye, maybe with a handshake but certainly not with a hug. I assumed that we would talk again in a day or two, but I couldn’t forget what my son, Merle’s grandson, said, after visiting him at the home, “Grandpa doesn’t belong here with these old people.” David was absolutely right: Merle C. Coon died on March 20, 1992, on the first day of spring.
Karl K. Taylor
May 28, 2012