The original Kansas White Way is pushing up daisies a quarter-mile distant. That’s a metaphorical description because the flowers are actually purple phlox and a single yellow iris, with some prairie grass added to the green carpet spreading across the old stone arch bridge. What’s left of the road is a hundred-yard stretch of dust and mud ending in plowed fields at either end, which is as accurate a description of what Kansas roads were like in the early 1900s as you’re likely to find. Dust and mud. And now, like the town of Rice, population a handful and one very large Great Dane, fading into invisibility.
As the early morning sun lifts above the woods bordering the Republican River, shadows slowly creep back in defeat. Traffic is nonexistent, leaving me the freedom to stand in the center of Highway 9 and frame a shot in preparation for what I know is coming. Across the road, just past the rusty railroad tracks, stands an ancient elevator with sheet metal peeling off like layers of an onion. Like the old highway, the town or the tracks, one shade less and it’d be a ghost.
History is what happens when we aren’t looking. The present, a mere nanosecond in length, laps against the future like waves on a shore, brushing ever so lightly against its surface, rubbing off grains until they are carried off to sink into the dark deeps of the sea. But at what moment does the past become history? In a week, a year, a decade, a century? Here in Cloud County it’s measured in the trains slowing to a crawl at the gates of Camp Concordia, or in the magnificent operas performed at the opulent Brown Grand Theater, or in a half-mad wanderer, bitter, disillusioned, taking a shovel and sinking it into a barren field to dig a burrow where he could hide from his enemies, both real and imagined.
When you’re standing in the middle of a road waiting for something to happen, the mind’s roving backwards and forwards is as natural as breathing. But the immersion in the chronicles of the area has left me uncomfortably adrift, as if history was no more than a thin membrane separating this world from an alternate one, and I had somehow broke through and found myself caught midway between the past and the present.
The sensation began with a limestone guard tower set beside a dusty dirt road. It looked ridiculously out of place, its empty windows staring soullessly out over short-cropped fields. In the distance stood a concrete tower, and between the two, slightly to the east, was a long wooden building. From its open doors we could see the nose of a 1937 Ford convertible sticking out. When we pulled into the drive, a small man with a big grin stepped out and greeted us.
Don Kerr was to be our guide to Concordia. He showed us his garage, formerly part of the POW camp where 40,000 German prisoners of war were housed. In the back of the building light filtered through tiny windows high up near the ceiling, and it fell like a patina of dust on the old cars and trucks half-seen in the duskiness. A display near the front showed photographs of how the camp looked in its heyday, and I was surprised to see smiles on the faces of the prisoners. Even as I shocked to see a picture with rows of headstones. When asked, Kerr said the graves had been relocated to Fort Riley.
The picture disturbed me somehow. Being brought to a foreign land, an enemy land, only to die and never return home, seemed a lonely fate. Juxtaposed with this was the realization that the soldiers were treated so well, up to the inclusion of beer with their meals. Some even elected to remain and settle after armistice. In those images I saw an America that has been lost, replaced by an administration that argues the legality of torture.
The feeling deepened when we visited the museum. While the others went ahead, I stayed behind to look at drawings prisoners had made. Some were portraits but most were townscapes with church steeples and stone bridges and cobbled streets, images of homes they might never see again.
It was while walking in a funk that I found myself beside a glass case, where a rusty .36 caliber cap-and-ball pistol caught my attention. The display said the firearm might once have belonged to Boston Corbett, who for a while lived south of Concordia in a handmade dugout. He had come to Kansas seeking refuge from the media and hostile threats, and his time here was marked with increasing acts of eccentricity. Locally he was known as a quick-trigger religious fanatic, a bitter ex-soldier and a hermit, and nationally he was known as the man who killed John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.
I was whisked away before I could learn much more, but something about the story captivated me. Late in the afternoon I tried finding time to visit his dugout, but couldn’t. In the evening we drove to the Clyde Hotel, where we sat on the second floor verandah and relaxed as dusk settled in. I watched chimney swifts arc overhead and listened to the calls of Eurasian collared-doves, which, like some of the German prisoners, had found home in this strange land.
Maybe once something happens it leaves a residue that never disappears, like a fingerprint, or an echo or restless spirit. And maybe time is an artifice, a sleight of hand to fool us into believing that life moves on a linear trajectory. The forties are across the river. The 1800s are to the west. Boston Corbett fingers his revolver and stares like a mole out at the blue sky. Behind me a stone bridge rings with the sound of horses and Model Ts. Down the road a glint of sunlight reflects off the windshield of a 1930 Model A Ford. I crouch and frame the dilapidated elevator in the viewfinder. The ooohgah of a horn mingles with the three-note call of a collared dove. Time is a figment. We’re all strangers here.