Saturday, June 23, 2012

IX: Night noises and the road south

       Sometime after making camp on the night of October 7 a ghastly shriek erupted from the timber surrounding their wagons. The noise stopped them in their tracks as if time itself had ceased, each in his or her own singular chore, Sadie cooking supper, Lucile playing with a doll, the others cooking or cleaning or building small fires or feeding the horses, frozen into immobility by a wail unlike anything they had experienced, at once shrill and commanding and altogether terrifying. 

Fred Vail alone acted. He grabbed an axe and moving toward the sound placed himself between the others and whatever menaced from the forest, the axe raised in a defensive posture. Apparently the move was so uncharacteristic, so unexpected, so wildly unorthodox that the others were reduced to fits of uncontrollable laughter. 

“What are you going to do with that?” they asked.

“If that thing comes galloping this way I’m going to kill it,” he replied, gruffly I’m sure, undoubtedly miffed that his show of testosterone and manly manhood had been so soundly snubbed by the very people he intended to save—at his own peril, too, which made the snub all the more insulting. 

“He was real brave,” Sadie wrote, whether from admiration or sarcasm it’s hard to say. 

On inspection the noise was determined to be a wildcat whistle from a nearby mill. After the scare they settled down to an uneventful evening that by morning had turned to a hard rain.

October 8 was a repeat of all the other days when the group encountered municipalities: the women stayed with the wagons, the men went roving to find supplies, old friends or for the hell of it. One cannot help but wonder how many saloons or taverns were visited by Fred and the two Charleses during these extended excursions while the women waited, and waited and waited some more. Their eagerness to separate from the females at the first sign of civilization certainly indicates more questionable motives if not powerful thirsts. Topeka would be different in that the men went off to “get the mail and Sadie’s coat” with orders for the women to take the wagons through town to the south shore of the Kaw.

So they did. “I drove the mules through traffic of the city,” Sadie wrote that evening. “Think of it! All teams pranced all the way through.”

There’s a distinct measure of satisfaction and pride in her entry. She could just as well written “Think of it! Three women driving three wagons through the largest city we would encounter, prancing all the way through while all those idiot drivers goggle-eyed us in stupefaction. Who needs men?” She had to have been aware of the women’s suffrage movement which at the time was picking up steam with public exhibitions of stamina and strength (as well as through the halls of Congress), meant to show the dominant male gender that women weren’t “the weaker sex” as implicitly and rigidly enforced by the cultural and religious ideals of the time. Political pressure to allow women equal rights had been sparked by Carrie Nation’s hatchetations though the push to enable women the right to vote and assemble went back to the late 1800s. A 12-day, 170-mile “hike to Albany” was staged in 1912, only one such event conveying the fairer sex’s unwillingness to allow conventional mores to continue. “I am woman, hear me roar” would come much, much later but here was Sadie, Goldie and Maryetta guiding their covered wagons through city streets choked with automobiles, pedestrians and animals of various sizes and shapes while their men cavorted wherever, and they did so with verge, aplomb and an abiding sense of contentment.

Apparently the canines had had their fill of being trampled by errant wagons, carts and cars and managed to steer clear of danger. Meanwhile Fred and his male companions scoured the northern section of town for Sadie’s coat and came up empty-handed. Charles Jewell, having reached the end of his tolerance for the balky horse, traded it off for a more docile beast. By the time they returned the wagons had crossed the Kaw and were waiting about a mile on the other side. After some consultation the men returned to the city ostensibly to see if her jacket was in South Topeka which it wasn’t. Nights were getting cooler as autumn settled in, not the most opportune season to be without outerwear, and the loss concerned them. 

By nightfall they made camp near a party of negroes, Sadie wrote. It was the first of a successive number of entries enumerating camps of what must have been itinerant workers and their families, many of them Hispanic. During 1900 to 1910 large numbers of Mexicans were imported to build railroads throughout Kansas, also as laborers in the sugar beet fields of Finney County, the meatpacking plants in Kansas City, and the salt mines in Hutchinson, Lyons and Kanopolis. Topeka saw a huge influx during those years. The gradual collapse of the Osage County coalfields around Carbondale and Pomona between 1910 and 1914 probably accounted for some of the camps as families and workers sought jobs elsewhere. It wasn’t exactly the Grapes of Wrath but it probably wasn’t far from it.

Sadie closed her daily log with a whimsical admission that the story of their own exodus was by necessity lacking in details that would put flesh on what was otherwise little more than a skeletal outline. There was so much to see, so many new experiences and details to record as they grew into their roles as modern day pioneers that it would take a full-time stenographer to tell it right. There was also the wagon’s suspension. “I can't write when the wagon is in motion or I could write lots of funny things that are soon forgot,” she wrote. As with most remembrances, diaries and journals there was never enough time for a retake. What went unwritten vanished as if it never happened at all.
(To be continued)

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