Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
"Writing a story about a place
calls that world into existence."
About six years ago while crawling through the impossible traffic that inundates the Washington DC metro area, I allowed my mind to wander a bit. In that short-lived ramble, an idea came to me as a sort of a formless, nascent presence. Over the next few months, I allowed that idea to toss about my mind, kind of like a sock in a dryer. Eventually, the idea took a more substantial form from which a myriad of possibilities sprung. About nine months later, I sat down at my computer and began to give life to those possibilities. Five years hence, that promising genesis has grown into that most difficult of enterprises: My first book.
This past week, after two months of invaluable therapy provided by my editor, the incomparable Dr. Gayle Herde, this long-awaited accomplishment went live on Amazon Kindle, under the title "Tales of Barely, Missouri."
In my late professional life, a big part of my job as an intelligence analyst was taking a simple idea and shepherding it from birth through analysis to completion. It always felt like an accomplishment, particularly since the subject matter was always excruciatingly difficult. But this was different. This was personal.
In my mind, I created a small town in south Missouri. Since the town was just barely inside the line separating Missouri from Arkansas, I named it "Barely." Then, drawing on my memories of the kind of people I had met and come to know growing up in that state, I populated Barely with the kind of interesting characters that I felt would live there. Barely is a very poor community. Subsistence farming lies at the heart of its economy, subsistence meaning that only part of what they grow is sold. A lot of it goes to survival. People do have televisions, but cannot afford cable or satellite. They are left with two channels that are viewed, more often than not, through a small blizzard of static. Because of that, the information about the world at large is limited, but since every day is a struggle to get to the next, the larger events transpiring outside the steep hills and dense forests of Ridge County is almost irrelevant.
The folks of Barely are unsophisticated, true; but they possess a sense of morality and ethics that is grounded in the tradition of the generations that preceded them. They know intimately the history of their families, but it's not likely that anyone is going to know much about the Peloponnesian War. But there is a sense of unity, a shared feeling that in this thing called life, they are definitely in it together. There is no envy or jealousy because everyone is equally poor. And when one member of the community falls into misfortune, the rest pitch in to help.
You could almost say that the town lives in a kind of suspended animation as far as the outside world is concerned. If one of the dead residents were to come back to life from a half-century before, they would see little, if any change. Barely goes on, day after day, floating through life as a branch meanders downstream floating languidly on the waters of Lester's Creek.
It's been interesting to analyze the development of this story in contrast to my own life. I grew up watching the Woodstock Generation do battle with the Old Guard represented by those who had survived the Great Depression and World War II. That kind of carefree attitude towards life lasted until the harsh reality of the 70's with its economic and social malaise. The 1980's and 1990's were decades that put their own peculiar stamp on those who lived them. The turn of the century and the accompanying technological explosion changed everything. I watched the world change in ways that I am still trying to understand. Perhaps there is a part of me that yearns to live in a place like Barely where things don't change, and life remains a comprehensible existence.
Whatever my motivations were, Barely now lives inside my head. The good people of the town also live in my heart. I have a lot of affection for them because I know the courage that it takes to get up every morning and pile into that battle to survive, and to fall exhausted into bed at night only to do it all again. I admire people who fight that battle, and refuse to surrender.
Finishing and publishing this book is the first real productive thing I've done since retiring. The intervening months has been a time of disillusion and struggle. I've had to learn to redefine who I am, and to seek the fulfillment that I used to find in the simple task of going to work. In telling the tales of this small town tucked away in the Ozarks, I have begun to rediscover myself, and to discover a part of me that I always suspected was there, but never had the time to find out.
I earned the title of "writer" in the effort of writing newspaper columns. But I always wanted to earn the more difficult title of "author."
Maybe, just maybe, I'm almost there.