I loved movies when I was a kid, especially westerns. They were great fun, but like most movies from back then, nothing bad ever really happened. Well, nothing bad without some kind of sounding resolution.
I mean, Devil Dandridge rustled up some cattle, but Daring Dardanelle was always there to stop him and return that stolen property. The hero always got the girl, shot the bad guy in a completely tasteful, bloodless way, and returned the cattle to the rancher. Good times, man.
Of course, the movies focus on the adventures of Daring Dardanelle. The rancher and his helpers were secondary characters, largely unimportant to the story. I mean, you went to the movies to get an escape from real life, not watch it on-screen for a couple hours.
So, Billy Backhand and Georgy Goodwill were consigned to existing in the background, giving the impression of a working ranch or farm to the viewer, or maybe carrying the plot forward by bursting into the scene telling the hero that the bad guy had stolen the cattle.
Real life can be like that, too.
The big events steal the headlines, while the things that happen to us everyday folk just fades into the back pages. But sometimes, what happens to those guys in the background is way more interesting than you’d think.
Christian Bobst was only thirteen years old in 1914.
It was just before the Fourth of July, and he had been working hard on a toy cannon that he had made from gas pipe.
Most of us probably wouldn’t have paid him much notice. We might have known his father, a jeweler in Des Moines, Iowa. But young Christian probably would have been a background character. Maybe there was a quick introduction, then a short dismissal, and we would have seen him working on his cannon in the background.
Like most of us who have worked with our hands on something, we’re anxious to see it in action. You hope it works, but you’re never quite sure until you get up there and actually do it. Chances are Christian was too, getting ready for his first miniature artillery test fire.
But something went terribly wrong.
The toy exploded when he used it, the iron gas pipe that served as a barrel sending shrapnel in all directions. Christian must have been right on top of his toy. Iron pieces flying at terminal velocity tore through his face and one eye.
He was taken to the hospital, but died shortly after, mortally wounded in a horrible accident.
A Run of Bad Luck
Jack Sharps farmed near Eldon, Iowa. In late June of 1913, he was working in a cherry tree when he lost his balance and fell, breaking his arm.
Life on a farm is hard enough, and it certainly doesn’t get any easier when you’re hurt. But he was young, and Sharps didn’t really have any choice but to figure out how to work around his injury and get things done. The livestock wouldn’t feed themselves, nor would the various daily chores be miraculously completed until you were healed.
A week later, Jack was in his barn, leaning against the doorway. Maybe he was thinking, or maybe just taking a break for a few moments. If you were to walk by in that moment, you’d see a young farmer in the doorway of a barn. Nothing special, just a guy.
A few moments later, a bolt of lightning shot from the sky, striking Jack and killing him instantly. The same bolt set something on fire, maybe even a piece of Jack’s clothing. The fire spread, eventually consuming the barn and some livestock.
A Long Walk
Train stations could be a busy place in 1914. Men and women rushed through, heading toward places unknown. Honestly, you don’t really care. They’re in the background, and don’t really mean anything to you. They’re just people, going about their business, just like you.
If you were on a passenger train alongside 7-year-old Charles Doherty and his mother in 1914, your feelings probably wouldn’t have changed much. You pass them in one of the cars as they make their way to the rear platform, and then forget that they ever existed.
You’d have no idea that while his mother was talking to someone on that platform, Charles somehow fell off the train.
He landed hard, but alive. Charles stood, watching the train make its way down the track. There was no way that he was fast enough to catch it, but he couldn’t stand in the January cold and freeze to death, either.
Charles began to walk, following the tracks leading into Stuart, Iowa, a half mile away. Just outside of town, a man driving in his buggy saw the boy, and immediately took him to a doctor.
He arrived a little worse for wear, cold and bleeding from a headwound he had gotten in the fall.
In little Charles’ case, we got a resolution, and a pretty good one to boot. But we don’t always get that, or at least the one we wanted.
I heard a comedian something to the tune that if we always got what we wanted in life, then he would have been playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. I’m sure that most of us could sympathize with that.
Life isn’t a movie. We don’t always get to write the ending that we want. If I was the writer, Christian Bobst would have lived to a ripe old age, surrounding by a loving family. Jack Sharps would have gotten to watch his kid grow up.
But it didn’t happen.
Each one of us is carrying out our own lives, focused on what we’re doing. For the most part, others blend into our periphery, side characters in the movies of our lives. We pass by each other in the grocery aisle, and then carry on.
The thing to keep in mind is that everyone has a life, and things have happened and will happen to them when they walk out of ours. They all have a story or two, and they’re almost always worth hearing – and remembering.
You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland.
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‘Knoxville Lad Killed by Toy Cannon Made of Gas Pipe.’ Evening Times-Republican, 7/2/1914
‘Eldon.’ Evening Times-Republican, 7/2/1913
‘Lad Fell Off Train; Walked to Town.’ The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 1/20/1914