“The fear of the tongue,” Willa Cather wrote, “that terror of little towns. . . .”
Clabe Wilson knew about it first hand.
Railroad officials had asked around Dexter about anyone seen spending time along the railway. It looked like something had been deliberately placed on the tracks to hinder the trains. Clabe Wilson’s name came up and he was questioned about it. He occasionally drank to meanness, but was honest to a fault, sometimes to his own detriment.
But the suspicion stung.
New Year’s Day 1935, Clabe trudged along the Rock Island tracks, shivering as he headed to the pumphouse, a part-time WPA job, brooding about being suspected of a misdeed. Was it common gossip around Dexter that he couldn’t find a real job? That he sometimes drank too much? Drab smoke drifted from chimneys into the weary winter as he plodded by each house. It was desolate and cold inside the little brick pumphouse, with nothing to do but keep the pump oiled.
Being on welfare in the 1930s was called being “on the dole” or “on relief.” Families were ashamed to accept money and food paid for by other citizens. The Wilsons were in that somber predicament.
Neighbors and teachers in this small town were appreciative and supportive of the family, but a few negative comments wormed their way back. Not only that but accepting government dole was a dreaded necessity.
Clabe tucked a June 16, 1935, clipping into a small cloth-covered New Testament, “Why Is Gossip Harmful?” At the bottom he wrote in pencil “Look it up.” The Scripture noted was James 3:1-6, about the destruction the tongue can wage.
There are several paragraphs, but Clabe had underlined part of this one: “A gossip is a public menace, and richly deserves to be muzzled; for a biting, dishonest human tongue can do more harm than the snapping jaws of a dog! A gossip can ruin your reputation, start a run on a bank, break up a church, make neighbors hate one another, shatter the happiness of a town. And no man is immune to the serpentlike flashing of a gossip’s tongue.”
Keeping a clipping like that says a lot about a man.
This became part of a chapter called “Gossip” in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.