Monday, December 16, 2013

Thankless birds

Later, as the house fell silent except for the hum of the furnace, Lori turned to me and said, “Too bad about the chickens, I was hoping your family would be talking about them for years to come,” and I said, “Oh, they will. Those chickens will never be forgotten.”

After a long pause, she laughed. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “But they might never ask you to cook again.”

I’ve always said that the things we remember most are those that go spectacularly wrong. Adventures, I call them, and not in the usual sense of an exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity calling for enterprise and enthusiasm. (U-Haul’s unfortunate use of the word in their motto, “Adventures in moving,” certainly applies.) Cooking the Thanksgiving chickens called for enterprise and enthusiasm aplenty, though minus the hazardous part as the potential threat of banishment from the kitchen wasn’t an overt concern. After all, the most effective way of never being asked to do something again is to do it so poorly that nobody in their right mind would ever ask again.

Still, the pressure to perform added an edge to the proceedings. It was our first family Thanksgiving in 40 years and I’d volunteered to cook the turkey. The others had heard me bragging of being able to cook a turkey in 45 minutes and demanded proof. It was only after we settled on the size of the bird that we all agreed that turkey wasn’t our favorite fowl, so we settled on a pair of large chickens, which were.

My first clue that the chickens might be an adventure came when I stripped off their wrappers. The larger chicken tipped the scape at eight-plus pounds, a behemoth of such gargantuan bulk that wondered if it might be radioactive. “Free-range from Chernobyl,” my brother quipped. The second was smaller but no less voluminous. Rather than something to roast in the oven, they seemed more applicable to firing from a catapult.

Nevertheless, I crowded them into a roasting pan, dusted them with Himalayan salt and Tellicherry rainbow peppercorns, and slid them into the oven. Every 20 minutes I basted them with butter and spices. After an hour I added a pound of white mushrooms to the pan. When the skin began to crisp, I basted more frequently. The kitchen was a blizzard of activity. My mother whipped up her famous cornbread stuffing, my sister-in-law creamed the peas, Lori mashed the potatoes and made giblet gravy, my dad put on another pot of coffee. My younger brother anchored the table. 

Forty years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. Somewhere along the line we’d all grown older. My parents were frailer than I’d ever seen them, and my brother’s red hair was graying. There was both more and less of me than before. But for a few blessed hours on a warm New Mexico afternoon it was like old times again, and maybe even better because after all we’d been through in the past year we recognized the fragility of existence and the waning of our days. Life as we knew it shortened with each heartbeat. As my father said, this might well be our last Thanksgiving together.

Two hours into the cooking, I slid the crisp, browned birds from the oven and wiggled the legs for doneness. They wouldn’t budge. I tugged and twisted and pried but the chickens remained impervious to my exhortations. 

Uh-oh, my wife said.

Undaunted, I stuck a meat thermometer into the breast. This involved positioning the sharp tip of the instrument against the skin and pounding the base until the tip broke through. The underlying white meat proved equally resistant. Enthusiastic hammering managed to sink the probe about an inch until the thermometer became intractably lodged. Nor would any amount of enterprise free it.

“Are they done?” my father asked.

According to the thermometer, they were 40 degrees shy of that mark. 
Suddenly, the number took on an ominous symbolism. 

“Almost,” I said, and slid the chickens back into the oven.

As the gravy congealed and the creamed peas gelled into a greenish viscous glob, we made small talk. Not a word was whispered about my culinary skills though I sensed an unspoken questioning in their glances. When nobody was looking I rooted through the trash can until I found the wrappers. Roasting hens, they said. 

What the heck is a roasting hen? I asked myself. 

To my family’s credit, they gave me another 30 minutes. Another 30 fruitless, wasted minutes. If anything, the meat was tougher. After hacking at it for several minutes with a sharp butcher knife, I asked my father if I could borrow his chain saw. 

As I said, 40 years is a long time not to spend Thanksgiving together. We laughed and joked and dredged memories from the archives of our lives, and the green chile wine whetted our appetites for my mother’s cornbread stuffing, my wife’s gravy, my sister-in-law’s pumpkin and apple pies, and we stuffed ourselves until we could hold no more. Off to the side, the two roasting hens solidified into an inedible rubbery concretion that would eventually be dumped into the trash. And it didn’t matter because we had each other, and for that we gave thanks.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Relics of the road

So little remains, so little is known. Or has irrevocably changed, so that what we now see is either a reflection, an alteration, an overlay or something entirely different. Determining which is which depends on historical research, guesswork, luck and lots of miles along the road. We were lucky, sometimes. And sometimes we weren’t.

And, too, sometimes the relics we discovered were just that, relics, so disconnected from their context that their stories had forever faded to silence. The sign in the window at Henry Brothers Station in Goff was such a relic, long and narrow with a point facing to the right, wooden, its grain stark and sharply etched, the black blocky letters faded but still legible. Goff 18 MI.

“Where’d the sign come from?” I asked the proprietor.

She shrugged. Didn’t know, only that it was donated to the service station. Nor did she know where it would have been located, other, of course, than 18 miles from town.

It was old and weatherworn and like other relics it didn’t so much explain as merely add to the growing list of questions. How prevalent were wooden road signs? What was their average lifespan? During what decades were they used? I jotted the questions down in a pocket notebook for further research.

All we knew for certain was that we were on the original Kansas White Way, or Highway 9. Across the street stood an abandoned building that was once the White Way Chevrolet, and beyond that a remodeled Harvey House. Much of the original road has been modified and straightened for modern vehicular traffic, but towns like Goff or Netawaka or Whiting had been stops along the route so that their streets were the nearest thing to the one true path. 

In between was another matter. Roads had deviated so much in past century that in places it was anyone’s guess where the original route had been laid. The highway leading west from Goff, a wide gentle curve traversing the ridgeline, had been built in the 1930s, we were told. Rumors had it that several bridges remained of the original route, and that if anyone knew where they were, it would be Gerald Swart.

Swart is the owner of Skeezix’s Toy Museum, located a mile or so west of Goff. The museum, housed in an unassuming steel building behind his house, contains hundreds of model cars, tractors, trucks, campers, construction equipment, airplanes, vintage penny banks, and historic relics from the area. Its name derives from a character in Gasoline Alley, a comic strip from the early 20th century.  Near the front door, encased in glass, is an oilcoth Skeezix doll, about 18 inches tall. 

We met Swart on a blustery, bitterly cold morning. After giving us a tour of the museum, he stood on the front porch and pointed into the valley below. Immediately to the south where a shallow creek snaked through the pasture was a concrete bridge, and with a little imagination one could figure out where the other two were. Even though we could see the town from our vantage, it was impossible to reconstruct the original route without adding a 90-degree bend in it somewhere. We could guesstimate, and, when I got home and pored over satellite images, could risk a guess, but in the end it was merely that—a guess—and nothing more.

Still, we followed his truck across the pasture, dropping down a hundred feet in elevation to the floor of the valley, and climbed from the warmth of the car into a teeth-numbing gale. Other than the bridges, all still showing little signs of decay or disrepair, nothing remained of the road itself other than a slight indentation in the grass. I hazarded a guess that it kept to its westward course to the northeastern edge of Corning where it then turned north. If so, it followed what is now a section line.

Subsequent research using satellite imagery and Google Earth revealed something else—a single reference that instead of heading north from Corning about five miles to branch off to Centralia, “Old Highway 9” followed what is now 52nd Rd. 

It wasn’t much to go on, and it also meant that we’d have to return for further exploration. And I’m not sure that it even matters anymore, except in the context of peering through a veil to another time and era where visionaries came together to chart an organized, 365-day highway across an often-impassable, indecipherable and, for all practical purposes, uncharted wilderness known as northeast Kansas. But I think, or like to think, that as benefactors of their vision we owe them something, a nod or recognition of some sort, and what better way than to retrace their route (as much as possible)  on that day in May of 1914 when they joined together to organize the Kansas White Way. So little remains except for the skeletal outline of the story, but as we all know, stories are meant to be told and retold. And if in the telling we discover something about this place where we call home, or even, if we’re fortunate, something about ourselves, then the story comes alive, part of our own mythos, our own homeground.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Windmill on right

105.5 (leaving Blue Rapids): Turn right (west), water tower on left. 105.8: Cross railroad tracks; turn left and then right two blocks; turn west windmill on right. – Official Log of the Kansas White Way

If you want to get a feel for what early travelers faced on Kansas roads, one could do no better than take Highway 9 from the intersection of U.S. Highway 73 west of Atchison and stairstep down through Effingham, Muscotah, Whiting and Netawaka. For much of that route the proliferation of ninety-degree bends guarantees a slow and impeded drive, sure to frustrate the impatient but something of a pleasure cruise for those interested in scenery, history and the allure of the open road. The speed limit, 55 miles per hour, is rarely attainable except in a few, rare, straightaways.

It wasn’t always so. One hundred years ago, as cars in rural areas gradually replaced horses and trains as primary means of transportation, roads were primitive at best, maps novelties and hard-packed surfaces rarer than honest politicians. But as motorized vehicles gained ascendancy, towns and counties banded together to form organizations advocating 365-day roads, otherwise known as “good” roads that didn’t dissolve into bottomless quagmires with every rain or snowstorm. One such group from Kansas City worked to create a two-pronged highway across the northern and middle sections of the state that would eventually link Chicago with Colorado Springs. It would be known as the Kansas White Way.

Meetings were often rancorous as towns bickered and fought for inclusion. Others, such as the one held in Frankfort on May 16, 1914, were enthusiastically supportive and comprehensive when an estimated crowd of 700 to 1,000 supporters descended on the town to lay out a route roughly paralleling the Central Branch Railroad. Drivers had set out from Atchison in the east and Concordia in the west, with additional drivers joining the twin convoys as they passed through the small towns dotting the course, to organize, elect leaders and designate compilers for the proposed logbook. Unfortunately for the Atchison group, their return leg was hampered by the dearth of signs, maps or experience with the area, the end result being they had to sleep in their vehicles while waiting out the night. By sunrise they must have been even more determined to get a proper highway charted through northern Kansas.

Once the highway was approved, improved and mapped, simple markings consisting of two narrow black bands enclosing a large white field were painted on fence posts, bridge railings, poles, roadside trees or other objects providing visibility. The signs were instantly recognizable by travelers and served with distinction, if not frequent reapplications of paint, until their eventual supersession by metal signs and numbered highway designations. 

The course of the original Kansas White Way changed over the decades, partly through efforts to straighten roads, improve traffic flow and modernize bridges, but traces can be found in every town from Atchison to Beloit, where Highway 9 merges into U.S. Highway 24. Every town has at least one abandoned gas station, small and angled to the street with long overarching canopies sagging under the weight of time. The former White Way Garage lies shuttered beside the road in Goff across from Henry Brothers Station, a small box station that was formerly a house. Netawaka has a street named for the White Way, perhaps the last remaining visual representation. In 2006 when a car run was celebrated as a prelude to the highway’s centennial, there was one other in Frankfort, a large black and white sign denoting the White Way Chevrolet. It has since been changed to Lee Chevrolet. 

So much, in fact, has been changed, or replaced, or unkinked, or simply forgotten that when organizers from four counties began planning a bigger, better celebratory car run for 2014 they were accused of advocating white supremacy. There was, though not in the way the witless detractors meant, some truth to the notion. The Log of the Kansas White Way praises the road as the “Shortest and Best Automobile Route connecting Kansas City with Denver and Colorado Springs, [passing] through the most picturesque valleys and largest cities of the state. Follow the White and Black Marker all the Way.” Long before Route 66 was a glimmer in someone’s imagination, there was the Kansas White Way. Surely, organizers say, that’s worthy of remembrance. 

Plus there’s the matter of that hundredth anniversary.

“You only get one,” said Lawrence Herrs, whose auto/truck/tractor museum in Washington draws thousands annually. “We have to do it.”

Which is why I turned off the road on the eastern edge of Goff to inspect something I glimpsed in the window of Henry Brothers Station. Was it a piece of the original White Way, some unheralded and largely unknown relic? The only way to know was to stop. Slinging the camera across one shoulder, I grasped my wife’s hand as we crossed the parking lot. The adventure, I thought, starts here.