Making Betrayal into Lemonade, Part 2

This is the second in a ten-part series about how a family from the city adjusted, survived and escaped from a bizarre rural American reality that had to be lived to be believed.

The winds of change were blowing in Kansas City during a frigid February of 2013. My husband Luke’s entire department in Kansas City had just been deemed redundant after a buyout. He and his work friends were told they no longer had jobs.

Luke’s employer offered everyone on Luke’s 35-person team a deal: If they pledged to remain on the team through the layoff period and demonstrate good behavior until the buyout transition was complete, they would walk away with a decent severance package. Luke is loyal to his employers to the bitter end, so he took the option.

Department closure was planned for April, just one month shy of my graduation. I was in my last semester of a master’s degree in public administration. My focus had been on nonprofit organization startup scenarios and social entrepreneurship. As with everything I get myself into, I approached it with passionate focus, with practically zero guarantee of solid work after my degree. We were in need of options.

My good friend Patty, who ran a youth performing arts program in Mountain View, Missouri, brought up the possibility that Luke and I were in the prime position to adopt the entrepreneurial Ozarks attitude for ourselves. She thought we could make something beautiful happen with her and her father, who for the sake of this publication we’ll call ‘Bob.’

For our presentation at a Shark Tank type business competition, I doctored this shot of the water tower next to the factory, which is normally gray. We hoped to convey the idea that the trade school would lift lives and solidify futures.

Bob wanted to repurpose his derelict factory, where Patty had been rehearsing her teenaged performers, to teach kids how to turn wrenches, hammer nails and work with electricity and gravity without killing themselves. In the 1990’s, Bob had been involved in the inner workings of starting up a vocational training school in Michigan before he moved his family to the Ozarks to provide solace for Patty’s mom in the last months of late-stage cancer. Now, twenty years after her passing, Bob wanted to repeat the founding process to form a trade school again, this time in rural Missouri.

Patty thought I could help, and I was absolutely willing to give it a go. I was glad to hear her optimism combined with Bob’s clear vision. From Kansas City I started working on what is now my absolute favorite task: helping a nonprofit smooth over the startup process. I presented Bob’s trade school concept at a program like a live Shark Tank for charities that is held every year in Kansas City. Bob’s idea was a finalist, and I attributed our success to their family’s innovative entrepreneurial lifestyle.

The unexpected layoffs threw my husband for a loop. He thrives in long-lasting employer relationships. Steady to the end, he had thrown his all into his work for nearly a decade, even though it was immensely stressful for him. In Luke’s mind, his job had provided him with the medical coverage that helped him pay for his medications to the tune of over $10,000 every year, out-of-pocket. His medicines kept a mystery auto-immune reaction at bay as his immune system attacked the muscles behind his left eye. The swelling pressed it out the front of his skull, threatening his sight. Without his job, he wouldn’t be able to afford the meds.

Luke said that regardless where he and I ended up, he knew it would be difficult to treat the auto-immune disorder until he got a job again. He knew he would eventually run out of his supply of prescriptions. Luke told me that it was his turn to become blind in his left eye, like three generations of men before him on his mother’s side. He called it the family curse. Besides, he said, this project was worth the sacrifice to him. Why was Luke so gung-ho, to the point that he was willing to lose his eyesight? Well, he had encountered vocational education in high school and college, and he believed in its power to mobilize people.

Luke’s trade school education track had helped him find confidence and direction in life after a childhood where he had been the target of bullying. (The things we learn about our spouses after fifteen years of marriage can be surprising.) The trade school project would be something he could easily be passionate about, making the change easier, he said.

For my part, I helped Bob select local prospects and recruit a founding board of directors. We put together a plan for incorporation, including gaining 501c3 status for his desired organization. There was only one snag: Bob wanted the school to earn him a regular rental income, he wanted to be a paid instructor, and he wanted to serve on the governing board as the founder. There were potential legal problems with wearing that many hats. They’re lumped into this category of issues called ‘conflict of interest.’

With the shortage of people living in the Ozarks, conflict of interest scenarios are hard to avoid. There just aren’t enough people available to share the duties required to run nonprofit organizations. While employers frequently complained about a labor force shortage down there, we worked against a volunteer board member shortage.

By mid Spring, Patty and Bob started talking about the possibilities of our family moving into a house that Bob owned. The home was across a field from the factory. They thought it would be perfect for when I was to start a paid administrative position, which Bob said could happen after we secured some local support. Bob started naming names of affluent community leaders who would fully support our effort, and I laid out approach plans for each one.

Bob proposed a monthly rent amount of $600, which was an absolute steal compared to Kansas City prices, especially considering the expansive square footage of this home. Bob did mention that the previous renters had left a bit of a mess behind.

Luke, being ever the handyman, offered his services (and by proxy, my muscle too) in cleaning up the home, since we had arranged the sale of our own home, and the move-out date was swiftly approaching. Bob proposed waiving at least one month’s rent if we’d help him clean the property to the point it was livable. We used some of our savings to bring a roll of vinyl flooring with us from Kansas City because the interior floors were absolutely obliterated.

“Welcome to your new home! You don’t mind the soiled mattress, do you?” This was just the pile that was on the front porch.

Thank goodness we had brought our own appliances, because not even the refrigerator was fit to be used. We moved it into the garage as our first mitigating cleanup act, just as a holding area until we could hook up the hose and remove that particular stench. There was still what had once been food left in pools in the drawers, shelves and doors of the old refrigerator.

Every square inch of both the original shag carpeting and the newer addition carpeting had dirt and mystery substances caked into it. Luckily we brought our own carpet cleaner. For the entirety of our stay in the house, vacuuming and shampooing the carpet became an exercise in dedicated hope for the livability of the home. If we waited more than two weeks to clean the carpet, the stench of cockroach and mouse droppings and wet dog hair would return.

The dark mold which we found on the walls in curious rectangle shapes showed us where the previous residents had chosen to place their furniture. The mold grew everywhere — in bathroom drawers, on the ceilings, and very quickly in the toilets after every cleaning. I ordered a mold testing kit from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, fearing for the health of my family’s lungs. The kit tested negative for black mold, thankfully.

Every nook and cranny where we removed another family’s waste, we would find long-spent deodorizing wax squares and a dead mouse. When we stepped outside to cook our meals in the fire pit in the driveway, we would find at least one tick either crawling on us or imbedded in our skin. Luke knew how to remove ticks without leaving the head under the surface because of his long hours spent exploring both of his grandparents’ farms as a child, and Patty helped me brush up on my pinching technique.

About three weeks after we started the 14-hours-per-day cleaning project, when we started feeling comfortable stepping onto the floors with our bare feet, we started unpacking boxes. In each box we discovered families of brown recluse spiders that had moved in, hoping for a cool place to spend the summer.

Tora learned that Mommy can be afraid. Every time I would feel something delicate brush our skin, I jumped and let out various high-pitched loud noises. Because Tora was our wonder child, at twenty months old, she played her first joke on Mommy. I was helping her eat a meal at her own little table and chair, when she suddenly gasped, pointed, and cried “Thpider!”

I jumped and whipped around, eyes searching for the little bugger who had the gall to interrupt our breakfast. I didn’t see it! “Tora, where is it? Where did you see the spider?”

My toddling kewpie doll stifled a laugh and grinned. “Kidding!”

The factory was within walking distance (after hopping a fence) from our back door, seen through this August morning fog.

We considered moving back those first few weeks. We acknowledged that this wasn’t quite what we signed on for when we had agreed to clean up the property a little. We had assumed life down in the Ozarks wasn’t quite as bad as Patty had made it out to be before we moved. Patty had this way of telling sensational horror stories with a twinge of mystery, leaving the lingering question in the listener’s mind, “Was that story a fish tale?” We thought that surely it couldn’t be that bad, and if it were that bad, Patty was a good friend who deeply cared about all of her students. She wasn’t the type of person who would invite us into an dangerously unlivable situation.

One time Patty boasted about the time when she had roamed the forest outside her father’s home and came back with chigger bites on every quarter inch of her feet. One of her teachers had seen her bloody, scabbing feet during a barefoot dance rehearsal afterward, asking, “Are you going to be OK?” One of Patty’s strong personal principles was to endure through suffering, no matter how much pain it causes you. After every story, she would check in with our dedication level. “The chiggers are bad out here — you can take a little itching, can’t you?”

We also noticed that after we’d report interesting things that had happened during our first weeks at our new home, she’d discount any notable qualities of the experience. “Are you scared of a little mountain lion?” (Yes, even though the Missouri Department of Conservation will tell you that mountain lions don’t exist in southern Missouri, that response was relevant.)

Patty had been left behind by her number-one most important person. Her mom had left her to go live with God in heaven when she had been a little girl. She was very sensitive to the possibility of abandonment, and she knew she had taken a big gamble inviting me into her inner life. Looking back on everything, I suspect that in her mind, I failed her by being weak.

After plowing through those first few weeks of nastiness, we now knew what Patty had meant when she told us one of the locals’ most favorite sayings regarding newcomers: “People come, and people go.” We were stubborn, and we were proud. We weren’t going to be the typical newcomer, we were sure of it.

Once we finally got settled in, seeing our next project staring at us from behind our house every morning became a meaningful symbol of our daily urgency of action. As we tackled our task, we didn’t realize how steep of a climb it would be. We certainly didn’t anticipate that before our stay was over, we’d witness the limits of humanity within our own home.

The next episode in this series takes a glance at a few other transplants to the area, and their creative approach toward capitalism. Their life experiences also represent the segment of population in the Ozarks which experiences poverty, even though they’re not native to the Ozarks.