Bill “Not Billy” Beal

Bill Beal at Turner-Phifer-Underwood-Robinson Family Reunion 07-21-2012I’ve been working like crazy transcribing interviews and editing videos to try to get them ready for the Vine Street Reunion at the end of this month. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed talking with Bill Beal at a 2012 family reunion. (He’s been trying to shed the “Billy” nickname as long as I’ve been trying to retire “Kenny.”)

Bill was one half of one of my favorite photos from Smelterville in 1967. He said he was 10 or 11 when I shot the picture with him, Margaret Turner and a cat. His sister, Fay Beal Powders, said “Not many people had cats, but mother let us have cats because I loved them.” Bill, she said, was a twin, and so was Margaret, his cousin.

Bill and Margaret

Smelterville 06-04-1967 27He dropped out of Central High School when he was 17 and went into the military. “I wanted to get out of Cape and I wanted to better myself. I was a ground pounder [in Vietnam]. Carried an M60 around.”

“A scrawny guy like you carried an M60?” I interjected.

“A big M60 and belts,” he said. “Then I got into sniper. I really enjoyed that. It’s not all what they say it’s cut out to be,” he continued. “When you go into sniper, you might be off in that drain pipe over yonder and you have to sit there for two or three days. You can’t move, and that’s it. I mean, bugs bite you and you can’t move. Snakes run across you and you can’t move.”

“Would you do that part of it again?” I asked.

“Yessir. In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, I would.”

Dad was a truckdriver

Turner-Phifer-Underwood-Robinson Family Reunion 07-21-2012Bill’s dad was a truck driver for the cement plant until he died of a massive heart attack when Bill was about 8 or 9. When he got out of the military, he thought, “maybe truck driving is in my blood.” He’s been an owner-operator for more than three decades, and “I put three stepkids through college.”

That’s Bill’s sister, Fay, with him.

Happy memories of Smelterville

Bill Beal and "Tube" Wren Smelterville 06-05-1967Echoing the sentiment I’ve heard from everyone I’ve interviewed, Bill had happy memories of growing up in Smelterville: “We didn’t go hungry. We weren’t dirty. We weren’t nasty. We had clean clothes. All the relatives, we lived together. It was like a little community down there like you’d have up in the mountains. Everybody knew everybody in that community.”

Bill is on his bike in the foreground.

“Back then, we didn’t care what nationality you were or what color. We all got along. You’d go out and get into a fight right now, then later on that night, you were all sleeping on a pallet or in a bed together. It didn’t make no difference. You all ate at the same place. If momma cooked something or grandma cooked, or whoever cooked, everybody ate. We didn’t care who you were or where you came from. Even the – they called them hobos that used to ride the trains and such – momma and grandma even fed them.”

Life could be hard

Smelterville 06-04-1967 12“We had the community pump. Later on in life, we actually had running water in the house, once we ran lines into the house. We still had wood stoves. We didn’t have any propane gas or anything like that. We always moved up north for the floods. Then, when the river went back down, we went in and scrubbed the floors and walls, threw the snakes out and rebuilt what had to be rebuilt to make it livable.”

Looking back at the pictures, he said, “brings back memories. After so many years, you don’t remember, but once you start back looking, yeah, it brings back memories of where we come from and where we are today. You know, what we went through to get where we’re at.”

That’s Bill on the left next to his cousin, Mary Jean Phifer. The baby name is unknown. The two boys at the right are Mark Turner, Margaret Turner’s twin brother, and “Jim Dandy” Wren.

Other Smelterville stories


Smelterville’s Billy and Margaret

In the spring of 1967, I had a Missourian assignment to shoot a cleanup in Smelterville – called South Cape or South Cape Suburb in Missourian style. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I used that as an excuse to wander around the community taking pictures of kids, adults, homes and piles of trash.

When I unearthed the photos a couple of years ago and started showing them around, I realized I had half a treasure: I needed to track the subjects down to see what had happened to them. I kept following promising lead after promising lead until this weekend when I struck pay dirt.

Family reunions

I was lucky enough to be in town for the First Annual Vine Street Connection and a reunion of the pioneer families of Smelterville: the Turners, Phifers, Wrens, Beals, Robinsons, Underwoods, etc.

My biggest break was sitting down with Fay Beal Powders, who is related to almost everybody I had photographed in the ’60s and knew most of the rest. One of my subjects was her mother. It was the only photograph of her she had ever seen. “I had the picture in my car and I had to pull off the road twice because I was so overcome by emotion,” she said.

On Saturday, she tracked down the adult versions of the two kids with the cat.

Here is her brother Billy (it’s Bill now, he says pointedly) Beal and his first cousin Margaret Turner. The cat, I was told, had exhausted all nine of its lives long ago and wasn’t available

Title is going to change

I’m going to turn the project into a book. The couple dozen prototypes with me were snatched up as quickly as I could hand them out. Even if it doesn’t make it into general circulation, there are a lot of folks who like to remember the caring, tight-knit community they grew up in. I wish I had spent more time documenting it.

My working title – Smelterville: The Shame of Cape – is going to change. Everyone I talked with was confused. “We weren’t ashamed,” they pointed out.

I had to explain that the shame was that Cape Girardeau would neglect a part of town in a way that would never have been acceptable north of Tollgate Hill.

I’ve heard some wonderful and moving stories in the past week and I have a list of more folks I have to interview. You’ll be hearing a lot about Smelterville as  work my way through it.