Thursday, January 21, 2010

Soundtrack to an empty land

I sometimes think as I drive the backroads of northeastern and northcentral Kansas that the empty countryside deserves its own musical soundtrack, something prescient and personal, able to enhance and deepen one’s emotional state, to fit the mood exactly, without having to channel-surf or root through stuffed CD or cassette cases or, God forbid, to execute one’s own improvisation of half-remembered stanzas, off-key choruses and not a few wordless riffs interspersed with la-de-dahs, dum-de-dums and other mindless repetitive utterances.

In my case, this would be known as extempore horriblis. There are those who can sing like angels and those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and I, unfortunately, fit in the latter category. I try not to sing around other people or fresh milk for fear of unintended, and often disastrous, consequences, which might be one reason I prefer my music either acoustic, classical or electronic. Not having lyrics to memorize (or mangle) lets me focus strictly on a tonal scale that can be altered or modified to suit conditions. Plus it’s hard to screw up humming.

If I had my iPod on a recent backroads jaunt from Washington to Hanover, I might have put on something dark and foreboding to emphasize the low dark clouds and the stiff wind cutting down from the north. Any symphony by Beethoven would have been equally appropriate, or maybe a little Wagner, or even something lighter with an expressive cello or piano. Since I’d left it at home, I turned the radio to NPR and listened to the latest news. Dire reports of bombings, economic collapse, bank failures and global warming were every bit as dark and foreboding as I’d wanted, only more so. I finally turned it off and drove in silence.

The object of my excursion was one of the original one-room schools. It’s hard to believe that Washington County once had 146 such schools, the highest number of any county in the state. Only a few are still standing in one form or another and it’s just a matter of time before neglect and the elements reduce them to rubble. Most were also simple structures framed in wood, iconic in shape. Charleston Center School was different: heavy limestone and brick walls, with rows of arched windows and a central arch spanning the front, it was a monument to education and a community’s sense of itself. And, when I found it, mostly fallen down.

My first thought was cello, definitely. A dirge, mournful and sad.

The side road leading to the school was liquid muck, so I parked on the main road and walked in. I tried keeping out of the deepest mud but found it impossible. Leaving posthole impressions in my wake, I made my way up the shallow incline until I could cross the road into a grassy field. By then my boots were three times their normal size.

Even in its dilapidated state the school was impressive. The east wall still stood, flanked by two redbrick pillars in front, with the intervening space filled with the remainder of the walls and ceiling. Some of it had burned as evidenced by charred beams. Mostly, it appeared to have imploded into a compact heap, the front archway falling inward as if it were the last to go. About half of its graceful length was still visible.

The wind moaned through the trees shadowing a small deep creek, plucking at my jacket with invisible fingers. As I moved around the building looking for the right angle for a photograph, a red-tailed hawk erupted from the ruin and flashed past in a long trajectory. It cried out in a shrill plaint of anger, its golden eyes boring into mine, and wheeling once and then twice around the school rose higher until it disappeared in the distance.

For a long moment I stood there with my heart hammering in my ribs, stunned at seeing the hawk at such close quarters. Its wild and untamed presence seemed the perfect match for the untamed land and the shattered walls. And that, I thought, was the best soundtrack to the great empty spaces: the cry of an angry raptor, the roar of wind through winter-bare trees. It doesn’t get much more personal, or evocative, than that.


Deb Southerland said...

Your words left the beginning of a movie in my head. Now, I'm waiting for the sounds of children playing, the bell calling the children in to their studies, the flashbacks to the time the school was beautiful and thriving.

Deb Southerland

Carol said...

This week's blog is extra-fine, in a fine series. Nice work, Tom.
My family has close connections with one-room schools. My grandmother taught in one. Grandma met my grandfather and stayed on after teaching. The couple had 12 children, and the nine who survived infancy attended that same school, South Star School in Jackson Co., KS. Later my aunt taught there and I still help organize an all-school reunion every summer. The last class was in 1958, so numbers attending our reunions are gradually dwindling.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Emporia University is starting a one-room school project this spring and I've been invited to be part of it. Don't know what it entails but I'll keep you in mind.

Deb -- As always, thank you.