My mother was deathly afraid of the Mississippi River, but it was my playground as a child in the river village of Ilasco, Missouri. Try as she might, she couldn’t stop me from swimming in the river or fishing from its banks while she was trimming soles at a shoe factory in Hannibal. After all, houses in the section of Ilasco popularly known as “Monkey Run” were closer to the river. Marble Creek, which ran past the edge of our property, met the river a short distance away. When my mother saw I was hell bent on swimming in the river, she tried without much success to make me wear a life jacket, at least when she was around. As a child, I thought she was unduly protective because she didn’t know how to swim, but later I learned that her fear of the river was rooted deeply in her childhood.
On July 6, 1936, eleven-year-old Bobby and ten-year-old Elmer Veal, sons of Benjamin W. and Mary Heavenridge Veal, drowned near the mouth of the river in Monkey Run. The Veals lived in a valley below the farm of my mother’s family of fifteen (Ernest and Blanche Sanders) on the edge of Ilasco at the time of the drownings. The Veal children and the Sanders children played and attended school and the Church of the Nazarene together. The Sanders were dirt poor, but my mother, who was eight years old when Bobby and Elmer drowned, recalled that the Veals were even “less fortunate.”
On the hot summer morning of the drownings, Bobby and Elmer had traipsed down to the river with a group of other boys to frolic and swim. The brothers were floating on a plank of wood, but they stepped off into a deep hole. Marshall and William Bowles, young boys on the scene who saw what happened, shoved the board toward them in a desperate rescue attempt. William managed to grab Bobby by the hair, but the swift, dangerous current below where Marble Creek met the river quickly swept both Veal boys away. An older Veal brother joined efforts to seine the area in an attempt to recover the bodies, which were swept downstream. Bobby’s body was recovered the next day in Ralls County, but Elmer’s was not recovered until a day later in the Pike County (MIssouri) village of Ashburn. After Reverend Harlow Reed conducted the boys’ funeral services at the Ilasco Church of the Nazarene, they were buried in Marble Creek Cemetery on the outskirts of Ilasco.
The Mississippi River wasn’t finished with the Veal family yet. Two years later on June 26, 1938, tragedy struck again. A recreational motorboat operated by twenty-eight-year-old Louis F. Behl, a Hannibal automobile mechanic formerly of Jacksonville, Illinois, capsized near Hannibal’s Nipper Park between the mouth of Bear Creek and the foot of Broadway. The small boat was zigzagging behind a larger vessel when two waves struck it in rapid succession. Aboard the capsized boat with Behl were thirty-one-year-old Allen “Buster,” Veal, of Ilasco, and Harold D. Shriver and Ruth Robinett, of Hannibal. Rescuers in boats responded quickly, plucking Robinett and Shriver from the river as they clung to the overturned hull. Behl, too, was clinging to the hull, but when he caught sight of Buster struggling under water, he let go in a heroic but fatal effort to grab him. The river swallowed both of them.
Nearly four months rolled by before the bodies of Behl and Veal were recovered about twenty-six miles from the Hannibal riverfront where they drowned. Near dark on the afternoon of October 15, 1938, two hunters who were setting up a duck blind spotted a belt buckle that led them to the skeletal remains of two badly decomposed bodies on a sand bar six miles south of Louisiana, Missouri. At first, the hunters thought the remains were those of a lone victim, but upon closer examination, it became apparent there were two bodies closely intertwined, locked in a death grip. The remains were removed and examined on the following morning. Behl’s remains were sent to Jacksonville for burial, and Veal’s were interred alongside those of his brothers Bobby and Elmer in Marble Creek Cemetery. Reverend Harlow Reed conducted funeral services at the Church of the Nazarene for yet a third member of the Veal family to meet his death in a dark, watery tomb of the Mississippi River.
The drownings affected my mother all her life when it came to the river. Betty Malone Jones, a neighbor, later recalled that parents in Monkey Run and Ilasco tightened the reins on their children after the tragic losses suffered by the Veal family. For many children in the community, the river became off limits in the aftermath of the drownings. Parents of young children conceded the creek as an acceptable place to play, but the unforgiving wildness and unpredictability of the river made it a far-too dangerous place for unsupervised children.
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