Whittle: I was swapped for a midget pony

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It didn't take long in life for a traumatic moment to happen to Little Danny Whittle.

This is a story I shared with nurses and physicians when I realized it was my "last visit" with older brother, H. Van Whittle, who was dying in 1993 with advanced Crohn's Disease and bone cancer.

Momma Whittle had related the story to me several years before her own passing: "Did you know that your brother swapped you to a neighbor farmer for a pony?"

Say what?

"I looked in the baby bed, and you were missing, I guess you were maybe 3 months old," Momma accounted. "I panicked, before seeing your brother walking down our farm road carrying something over his shoulder in a dirty old burlap soybean sack. You were in that sack and raising the dickens."

Say what?

"The farmer (the late Norvel Harrison) had asked your brother (five years older) what he thought of that new baby brother," Mother continued. "He said Van replied that he didn't think much of that baby. Norvel said that's when he advised Van to go get little brother, and he'd swap him for a Shetland pony. And Van did."

No wonder I've always been a tad on the jittery side of life ...

I picked up my part of the story to the nurses and doctors gathered around Van's hospital bed.

"Yes siree, big bro swapped little bro for a horse ... not a full-growed horse, but for a short midget steed," I shared. "And I think the miniature puny-looking pony fell barnyard dead a week or two later."

By this time, the medical staff and Van were laughing in convulsive guffaws. That's when I spun around, and walked out Poplar Bluff, Mo.'s VA Hospital for the last time.

As I left the room, I heard Van advising his favorite caretakers: "It was the best deal I ever made that didn't go through ... it was a beautiful Shetland pony."

Having made 12 trips back and forth to Missouri from my newspaper work in Tennessee, I knew that likely was my last visit with big brother. And that scene, with brother laughing and cutting up at our old lifelong story, was the last mental image I shared of my brother.

Bro and I always had a tradition of telling funny stories from our youth back on the farm ...

He died a few days later, at age 53, when one of the nurses called, advising that on the day I shared about being swapped for a little bitty pony, brother Van, with all of his laughing, didn't need another pain shot the rest of that day.

During that last milestone visit, I made arrangements for brother Van to will his body, which was racked from the painful Chrone's and cancer, for medical research at a hospital in St. Louis. He was that kind of guy.

Big brother lost a lot of his youth at age 11 in 1950, when Daddy Whittle perished in a grinding car crash. That same neighbor with the Shetland pony came down our farm road that long ago night in a cloud of dust.

"Ruby Lee (our mother), Hubert (our father) has been in a bad car wreck," farm neighbor Harrison advised. "You better get to the hospital ... for it doesn't look good."

Upon hearing those words, brother Van bolted out of our farm house, running and screaming down the nearby railroad tracks: "My Daddy ain't dead! My Daddy ain't dead!"

He bolted so fast and far, that another neighbor farmer was required to run him down in his new red Dodge pickup truck.

The next morning, Oct. 25, 1950, at 5:32 a.m., Daddy Whittle perished from severe head wounds resulting from a head-on crash with another vehicle. That was before seat belts.

I admired big brother immensely, especially the next crop-growing season, when he and farm neighbor boy, Bruce Gene Bryant, took over most of the farming operation in Daddy's absence. Both boys did their man-sized farm work at age 12.

Van became a bigger than life local sports legend later in high school, when he was named to a regional all-star basketball team by local newspapers.

Writer's Note: While doing research for my first published book - "Canalou: People, Culture, Bootheel Town" - chills went down my spine when Norvel Harrison's daughter sent me her diary from childhood, stating she and her family had actually witnessed Daddy's gruesome fatal car wreck.

I was age 6.

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Dan Whittle
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