Friday, July 20, 2012

XIII. A second life

       Sadie’s new high-collared coat came in handy as night fell. “It was so cold it was like sleeping outdoors,” she wrote the following morning, hands barely thawed above a bed of glowing coals and smoke stinging her eyes. A crystalline stratum of hoarfrost whitened the ground and every other thing living or material so that when the sun’s first rays speared above the horizon their fractured disarray prismed the air. With numbed fingers Sadie, Fred and the others made a quick breakfast and a pot of coffee and yet lingered around the fire discussing whether the frigid temperatures were portends or merely a seasonal anomaly. As there was no ready answer short of a crystal ball which they didn’t have in their meager possessions, they downed the scalding coffee and set about hitching mules and horses to the wagons.

The change in weather must have created a sense of urgency. The road was relatively smooth and flat and they made good time, perhaps covering the most territory in a single day. Two obstacles confronted them, the first a steep hill through which the road was a singular narrow slash shadowed on either side by high rocky outcrops. The same or a similar road still exists though undoubtedly tamed since 1912, easily managed in a modern car but daunting then to teams of horses pulling heavy wagons. By then the sun had burned off the frost and warmed the early afternoon and their exertions warmed them further. At the crest they let the mules blow and passed on toward Garnett.

The city was, and remains, the largest populated center in Anderson County. Served by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Missouri Pacific railroads, the city prided itself on its electric light plant and waterworks. Businesses flourished, including three banks, two furniture factories, a flour and feed mill, a planing mill, a creamery, cigar factories, eleven churches, public schools, two daily newspapers, two weekly newspapers, telegraph and express offices and a post office with seven rural routes and an international money order facility. The courthouse, a impressive Romanesque structure designed by George Washburn, had just celebrated its tenth anniversary when Sadie and the crew drove past.

It was a Saturday, traditionally the day farmers and their families came to town to shop or congregate. The streets were busy with cars and buggies and people and the noise of their commingling jarring to those accustomed to birdsong, the rhythmic tread of metal-shod hooves, the creak of harness and the incessant static of ironbound wooden wheels. Somewhere in the melee Sadie’s dog disappeared.

Today the city has a modern look to it—so modern that it seems as if a deliberate attempt has been made to eradicate its past. My first thought was that a tornado gleaned large sections of the city and rebuilding had done the rest though I’ve found no records to indicate that such an event occurred. Something about it struck me as odd, and the roundabout just south of town only added to my disgruntlement. Further damning my opinion of the place was a glossy, 16-page visitor’s brochure complete with a fold-out map that we picked up at the restored Santa Fe depot. “THE BEST KEPT SECRET IN KANSAS!” exclaimed the cover, followed by refutations and revelations of those selfsame secrets. That the brochure described the city as a place offering “traditional family life and values” cemented my distrust of the place. 

Nowhere within the brochure was any mention of a slow-moving tornado that stayed on the ground for 30 minutes while crossing just to the northwest on April 26, 1884. If not for A.A. Adams, a photographer from nearby Westphalia, it would have been just another near-miss. Adams, however, took a photograph of the twister—the first photograph ever to be taken of a tornado. The image was a virtual goldmine for the lucky photographer, according to the Kansas Historical Society. Not so lucky was a David Metheney who was driving a load of lumber three miles north of Westphalia. The same tornado scattered the wagon, the lumber, the horses and the driver across the prairie, the latter “a considerable distance in the air.” Metheney lived to tell the tale but suffered severe internal injuries.

As they left town on a gradual downward slope toward a distant creek they craned their necks to see if their dog was following which it wasn’t. With dusk falling they made camp on the south side of the creek about a mile from town. Supper was cooked, the horses and mules picketed, dishes washed, the usual nightly chores they had grown accustomed to by rote, though this night was different for the lack of one of the party’s members. Fred excused himself and went in search of dog. The air chilled while the others gathered around a fire. Instead of joining them Sadie went to the wagon and retrieving her diary sat down to it with pencil in hand. 

Writing is a solitary pursuit, undertaken in silence and separation. It was her time alone with only her thoughts for companionship, distanced from the others by an unbridgeable gap of introspection that harbored no room for others. She wrote about eating pawpaws and persimmons along the route that day, of how fine the country was (as observed from a farmer’s perspective), and noted that they had entered Anderson County. She did not, as was her usual habit, close her entry with a “We are all well,” all the more telling perhaps for its absence. Their dog was gone and her husband too and the night all the lonelier still, the empty pages holding more questions than promise. She thought and paused and wrote the things she deemed expressive of the day, hunched beside a lantern and the first stars brightening the twilight, and when she found nothing more to add folded the little diary and put it way, and went to join the others. 

“Diaries,” wrote Thomas Mallon in A Book of One’s Own, “are flesh made word. No form of expression more emphatically embodies the expresser. The reader is invited … to stand over the shoulders of men and women who bought themselves a second life through the books they wrote at the end of the day, before they went, and so, to bed.”
(To be continued)


Bud Simpson said...

Our impressions of Garnett are similar. Many towns south of Kansas City seem to have been sanitized - painted, swept and shuttered. No ghosts allowed.

Tom Parker said...

So I'm not the only one. Even the ghost of Sadie's dog has fled...

Vikki said...

You have such a way with words. You really do evoke the feelings of loneliness, and what a long, hard journey it was. I can't wait for the conclusion!

Carol said...

This one leaves me anxious. Looking forward to next week, Tom. Meanwhile, here is a Girard story involving Max's grandfather. (Max was raised to the age of 10 in Allen County.)