Monday, June 1, 2015

Monday's Poetry: "The Ballad of the West Plains Explosion"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Several month's ago I reviewed local author Daniel Woodrell's latest novel, The Maid's Version.  That work is a fictionalized accounting of an event that actually occurred in West Plains, Missouri:  the explosion at the Bond Dance Hall on April 13, 1928.  Sixty people were in attendance at the dance when a mysterious explosion tore the place apart, killing thirty-seven.  Twenty-two of the badly burned bodies were never identified and were buried in a mass grave at a local cemetery.

The massive explosion was said to have been felt in Pomona - ten miles away.  It did so much structural damage to the nearby Howell County Courthouse that the building had to be abandoned for several years until repairs could be made.

Although the cause of the explosion and fire were never determined, the dance hall on East Main Street near the public square sat above a garage, and there has been speculation that a gasoline fire originated in the garage.  There was even a suggestion that a truck loaded with dynamite might have been parked in the garage on the night of the dance.

The dance hall explosion was so horrific that it is still widely discussed today - nearly a century after the fact.

Recently my son gave me an old high school text book, Adventures in Reading, that had been used at West Plains High School during the 1970's - one of his flea market finds.  There were two loose leaf sheets of paper pressed into that book.  One was a political treatise on the need to integrate a college's workforce - which I will discuss in this space on a later date.

The other item in the book was a mimeographed sheet of paper containing a poem entitled "The Ballad of the West Plains Explosion."  Although there was no attribution with the work, I did find one reference on the internet indicating that it may have been written by a Mr. Vernon Dahlhart in 1928.

The copy I have was definitely run off during the 1970's at the time the textbook was in use.  As a high school teacher in the late 1970's, I remember those "dirty purple" copies with their smell of alcohol quite well!

Here is how someone, possibly Mr. Vernon Dahlhart, described the horror that befell West Plains in 1928:

The Ballad of the West Plains Explosion

In the little town of West Plains
In old Missouri State
Twas the month of April
They saw the hand of fate.

The springtime flowers were blooming
The world was bright and gay,
And no one dreamed that danger
Would come to them that day.

Twas there the young folks gathered
One fatal Friday night
And to the dance they wandered
With hearts so gay and bright.

And there they spent the evening
With not a thought of fear
For nothing came to warn them
That death was drawing near.

The dance was nearly over
The evening nearly past
From the floor beneath them
There came an awful blast.

The building all around them
Came tumbling to the ground,
And though they fought and struggled,
The hot flames beat them down.

How quick the scene was shifted
From one so gay and bright
How hard the brave men struggled
To save their friends that night.

How sad the tears of loved ones
Who came at the break of dawn
To see the great disaster
Where forty loves had gone.

We can't explain the reason
This awful thing must come,
But we should all be ready
To say, "Thy will be done."

And though our hearts are weary,
Our burdens hard to bear,
We have one consolation
We'll meet them over there.

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