Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lee Nida

One of my best friends during my wild and wayward youth was an old man (probably about the age that I am now!) named Lee Nida (pronounced “Ni-dee”) who lived in a ramshackle cabin on the side of a hill in my home town of Noel, Missouri. Lee was a town character that I had known most of my life.

I spent a couple of summers working for the city of Noel when I was in high school and college. On most days Lee and I were the entire work crew. Our supervisor, a really old rascal named Jim Woody, would drive up and check on us at various times during the day to make sure we weren’t goofing off. Lee could lean on his shovel or rake for hours smoking and philosophizing, but he had an uncanny sense of when Woody was about to make an appearance. I would be enthralled with one of his outrageous tales, when he would suddenly stop and say that it was time to get back to work. Sure enough, Woody would soon come puttering along to ensure that we were busy.

Lee had a couple of fingers missing on his right hand, possibly due to frostbite because he lived very primitively, so he had to roll his cigarettes with his left hand only. That skill alone earned the respect of many teens in the 1960’s, and, try as we might, my friends and I had to struggle to roll a decent smoke with two good hands!

Lee also liked cold beer. He would make a purchase for any teen who would transport his out of town to the liquor store and buy Lee a six pack for his trouble. Most small towns had a guy or two like that back then, and most parents knew what was going on. The activity was tolerated, and any parent who was forced to comment on the situation would reply with something like: “Kids will be kids.” Or, “At least he’s not doing drugs.”

After I hit the magic age of twenty-one, one of my favorite activities when I was home from college was to go out and buy a twelve-pack or two and drive up to Lee’s cabin to spend the afternoon. Lee had electricity to run his radio and refrigerator, but those were his only modern conveniences. He had no water, and a trip to the bathroom meant a trip out behind the cabin so as to be out of view of the highway below. He kept an old barrel under the eve of the cabin to collect rain water for bathing. The less it rained, the riper Lee became!

The cabin, a one-room affair, was dirty – greasy, grimy dirty – but I could sit at his old kitchen table for hours and listen to Lee’s unique take on life. He was a strong Republican and would go on and on about how no wars had ever been started by a Republican. One of the city fathers, who was dead by the time that Lee and I became friends, had been Lee’s employer for menial jobs over the years. Any time an election came along, this small town plutocrat would gather up all of his employees and take them to the polls and tell them to vote Republican. Lee couldn’t read or write, but he knew an elephant when he saw one! After all of his workers had voted, the city father would take them to the tavern as a reward. Chicago politics didn’t have a thing over the Noel machine!

Lee died while I was in the army serving on Okinawa, so it was sometime during 1972 or 1973. My mother wrote and said that he had been found in his cabin several days after his death. I didn’t know how old he was, and I am fairly certain that he didn’t know either. He had spent his entire life never traveling more that a few miles from Noel. He had never married and claimed no children. Lee did have a sister and nephew in Noel that he didn’t claim, but as far as I know there was no other family.

There weren’t many around to mourn the death of Lee Nida, but I did. He was my friend.

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