McClellan: Remembering the life and times of an Ozark poet | Bill McClellan

I last saw former Post-Dispatch columnist William “Chilly” Childress about five years ago. He was living in a converted meat locker on the side of a country road not far from Bisbee, Arizona. The desert stretched south to distant hills. The hills were in Mexico.

Not far from the converted meat locker was a double-wide mobile home, which belonged to Chilly’s landlord. Sort of his landlord, anyway. Chilly told me that he, Chilly, actually owned the meat locker, but the title was in the other guy’s name. It was quite confusing, as things with Chilly often were. Because the meat locker was in the other man’s name, Chilly was afraid that the man planned to kill him and gain possession of the meat locker.

“He will probably try to make it look like Mexicans did it,” Chilly said. Apparently, it was not unusual for Mexicans entering the country illegally to hike past the meat locker and mobile home.

I suggested Chilly talk to the sheriff. If the sheriff would talk to the man in the double-wide, any plot to murder Chilly would be foiled. After all, the would-be murderer would know that the sheriff was on to him. Chilly shook off the suggestion. The sheriff is the guy’s best friend, he said.

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The situation was further complicated by the fact that the converted meat locker represented the entirety of Chilly’s material worth. He had purchased it, and paid for the renovations, with money he had inherited after the death of his fifth wife. If he were to walk away from the meat locker, he would be walking away from his nest egg.

So it goes for poets. The world needs them but refuses to make allowances for their peculiarities.

Chilly had studied poetry at the acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop. He had published several volumes of poetry. He had even been called one of the best poets of the Korean War.

But it is very difficult to make a living with poetry, so Chill supported himself as a freelance writer. That eventually led him to a gig with this newspaper. He lived in McDonald County and wrote a column called “Out of the Ozarks.

Several months after I visited Chilly in Arizona, I got an email from him. He had abandoned the meat locker and was living with a nephew in California. Not long after that, Chilly stopped responding to emails.

Last month this newspaper published his obituary. He had died at a hospice in Paradise, California. He was 89.

The obituary had been paid for by Chilly’s son, Jason. I sent him an email.

“Your dad and I were friends,” I wrote. “I was best man at his ill-fated wedding on a riverboat.”

Jason responded that he had not heard about such a wedding. Chilly had been a loving, but often absent, father. Jason asked if I could tell him about the wedding.

Chilly began writing columns in 1983. Before long, they became popular. He hit the local lecture circuit. He soon expanded into full-blown performances. I went to one at a local college. He read columns. He told jokes. He played the banjo and sang corny songs. I remember the title of one — “Floating through Life on the Inner Tube of Love.”

He was a frequent guest on the KMOX morning show. Grant Horton was the host. When Chilly announced he was engaged to a woman he had met at a donkey basketball game in the town of Noel, Missouri, Horton made him an offer. The radio station would pay for the wedding if Chilly would let the station broadcast the ceremony and if KMOX listeners were the wedding guests. Chilly agreed. The station arranged for a wedding on a riverboat in St. Charles and held a lottery to determine the guest list.

I was best man. My wife, who knew Chilly but had not met his fiancée, reluctantly agreed to be maid of honor.

At the time, Chilly was in a dry period and was evangelical about sobriety. He told me his fiancée had been a honky-tonk girl but had seen the light.

That sounded ominous. Odds are better if you marry a honky-tonk girl who used to be a light-see-er.

On the morning of the wedding, I showed up at the paper wearing a tux that the radio station had rented for me. My colleagues gathered around to gawk. Despite Chilly’s popularity with the readers, there were those in the newsroom who had misgivings about our Ozark correspondent. Poets tend to be outsiders everywhere, but they especially stand out in a room full of professional skeptics.

Plus, there were those who thought that selling your wedding to a radio station was beneath the dignity of a newspaper — even if you’re floating down the river of life in an inner tube.

By the way, Chilly was completely oblivious to this. Readers liked him. He figured that is what counted.

Once he popped into St. Louis to ask for a raise. I tried to explain reality to him. We’re mice, I said. I then pointed to the closed door of the managing editor’s office. That’s the snake’s cage, I said. Mice do not voluntarily go into the cage.

Our managing editor, Dave Lipman, had a managerial style borrowed from Vlad the Impaler. He pounded on his desk. He shouted. But his style was leavened by the fact that we were — and are — a union newspaper. We can be yelled at without cause but not fired.

Chilly did not get his raise. He shrugged off his experience in the cage and continued his full-tilt charge ahead.

The wedding was a strange affair. The boat was packed with friendly strangers. Some wore suits and dresses as if this were a normal wedding. Others wore jeans and T-shirts as if they were at a baseball game, or, perhaps, the zoo. Chilly was in his element, shaking hands, making small talk, posing for photographs. His fiancée seemed bewildered. She knew none of the guests, not even her maid of honor. I remember one woman approached her and tried to be friendly. “I think I would love donkey basketball,” she said. The bride just smiled. I had the sense that she wanted a strong drink, but I hoped I was just projecting my own desires onto her.

A few weeks later, Chilly left their home — his home — in the small town of Anderson in search of a story. His modus operandi was to drive around and talk to whomever he saw. If some guy was standing in his yard, Chilly would stop to talk. He’d stop in any café he passed and start a conversation with the waitress. He was like a traveling salesman except that he had nothing to sell. Or maybe he was a fisherman, hoping to land a story. He might be gone for a day, or two or three.

When he came home from this particular trip, his wife was gone. So was his furniture and most of her personal belongings. A short time later, he got a letter from a lawyer. His marriage was over.

Chilly told me she had returned to the honky-tonk life. If he was hurt, he didn’t let on.

He eventually left the newspaper. He had gotten a fan letter from a woman in California. He flew to California to meet her.