Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Halfway from then to there

What I remember, what comes to me most strongly now in the opening stages of a winter that leaves me chilled to the bone, was the heat. It radiated off the pavement of downtown Courtland like a living thing bent on incinerating the throngs of people lining the streets and charring the cars and the trucks and the colorful floats making their slow, languorous way down Main Street. It seared the rubbery skin of the amusement park inflatables in city park until they threw back their own infernal heat like so many orange-black coals smoldering in the grass below the silvery dome of the water tower. The heat soaked into everything—the grass and the pavement and the white sands of the volleyball pits and the metal frames of the cars and the bricks and the glass and the benches and the enclosed oven-like prison of the beer garden—so that it seemed to emanate from all angles and all sides, infinite and inescapable.

Bad as it was—113 degrees on the heat index scale, a number that seemed laughingly low—the sizzling heat was like a balmy spring day compared to the hellish conditions cloying the cinderblock barbecue pit tucked in a corner by the alley where hundreds of chicken halves were roasted en masse, the smoke of their blistered skin rising like a diaphanous pillar into a pale cerulean sky bereft of clouds or color or the slightest whisper of a breeze. The bodies of those red-faced workers cleaning and cutting and sorting and spicing and grilling those truncated chickens steamed in the blast furnace temperature, their clothes, stained by an accretion of crystalized salt, pasted to their forms like wet paint. They guzzled liquids and Taterade, a potent, sweet concoction of gin, lemonade, lemons, oranges, limes and powdered sugar, until they felt waterlogged and giddy, and batting away the flies unceasingly labored over the smoking, cherry-red coals, unpacking fresh chicken halves and sliding them into wire cages by the tens and twenties, uncomplaining and unstoppable, certain of their role, the part they played in a custom that stretched back five decades.

It was the 50th anniversary of Courtland’s annual Fun Day—two days, actually, though the first day somehow didn’t count as if it were merely a practice run prefacing the main event—and Lori and I were there to photograph it from start to finish. During that long weekend we put in gruelingly long hours, witnessed every facet of every event regardless of the atmospheric extremes and became, in essence, honorary residents. And now, midway between the 50th and the 51st, we’ve been invited back for a discussion on the festivities from an outsiders’ point of view. 

Which is easier said than done. Normally I keep copious notes of our travels in a diary I’ve kept since 1973, but upon our return from Courtland, crispy and fried and altogether exhausted, we faced similarly long hours in our other jobs and, in my case, deadlines that brooked no delays. Unfortunately, writing my autobiography always plays second fiddle to writing for pay, plus there were more than 4,000 images of Courtland to cull and process. My own historical record would forever have a gap, like the Nixon tapes only less contestable.

With the absence of written reflections, all I had to go on was my memory, and that wasn’t too good. During four of the six months separating then from now, medications for nerve damage brought on by shingles have left me with short-term memory loss and random misfiring of my cerebral synapses. To be fair I had been warned that the drugs could make me suicidal, homicidal or stupid. Thankfully the first two never materialized.

The stupid part they nailed on the head. And while most of the effects have faded to near-obscurity, I have occasional moments when my mind goes blank, when simple things such as our address or phone number are temporarily wiped from my brain, when I forget where I’m at or what I was doing or where I was going. It can be quite comical at times. The medication also provides a legitimate excuse for my behavior, which isn’t an altogether bad thing.

It doesn’t, however, help me much in dredging up a coherent recollection of those two days. 

I realized early on that my photographs would have to fill in the missing blanks. Fortunately, for memory’s sake, the thousands of images catalogued in Lightroom are as sequential as possible when using two cameras. Sitting in my cool—sometimes too cool—home office, I could recreate the entire experience from start to finish, and, too, I could see my failures as well as my triumphs. 

In retrospect, given enough time to make lens changes (always a logistical challenge when one’s camera bag is two or three blocks away and suddenly, in the middle of the action, the photographer decides a speciality lens would be the preferred choice) I would have done some things differently. I would have asked the organizers for clouds to filter the sun. I would have kept myself more hydrated than I did, though to the town’s credit cold water was offered everywhere I went, and lemonade—or what I thought to be lemonade but wasn’t—was generously offered at the chicken pit. I was a little fuzzy on the details of what I was drinking, having misunderstood “Taterade” for “lemonade” thanks to hearing loss and what I was beginning to believe was the onset of heat stroke, and fuzzier still were the subsequent images taken in the aftermath after I staggered dazed and blistered from the chicken pit, weighed down with an alcoholic buzz and a brace of heavy cameras. While technically not perfect, those images, too, tell the story.

There were other misunderstandings, including one specific to Republic County. Somewhere during that first afternoon I was approached by a very nice woman who told me how much she appreciated my work. She introduced me to her family, and we talked together off and on for two days. It wasn’t until the second day, however, that she realized that I was not, in fact, Jim Richardson, the famed National Geographic photographer who has done so much to tell the story of neighboring Cuba. Perhaps it’s inevitable that any grizzled, bearded, Nikon-toting, broad-brimmed-hat wearing  photographer in Republic County will be automatically assumed to be Richardson, though it plays havoc with the hapless, non-Richardsonian photographer’s ego. 

It comes to me that my tale is anything but sequential. Though our lives follow a proscribed trajectory rooted in the movement of planets and galaxies pinwheeling through the universe, our memory is rarely linear. Sometimes arbitrary, sometimes peculiar in the details it summons, memory is a will-of-the-wisp. It goes where it will. Just now I was brought to the irrigation canal west of town for the annual duck race, witnessed by a handful of volunteers who dumped a box of plastic duckies over a foaming head gate and zoomed downstream to be ready for their painfully slow arrival. There were no cheering throngs urging their duckies toward greater haste, no crescendo of anticipation as the vanguard duckies neared the finish line, only the soft whir of grasshoppers and the sluggish whisper of water lapping the side of the canoe. A truck drove by dragging a plume of dust that rose into the air and drifted to earth with much the same pace as that of the duckies. Beers were popped to mark the occasion, though I wisely refrained. 

From the clamorous Drum Safari to the closing strands of Logan Mize’s electrifying concert, we tried to capture not just the outward manifestations of a small town celebration, but the very essence of Courtland culture and Courtland talent. Like other Kansas celebrations, there were the requisite cheering squads and local musicians and dancers and gymnasts, and parades where tractors and combines outnumbered vehicles ten to one. Unlike other Kansas celebrations, Courtland presented the non-requisite but nevertheless wildly entertaining whistling bellybuttons who resembled nothing more than grotesque Mr. Potato Heads wearing abbreviated tuxedos, top hats and copious amounts of red lipstick, the non-Celtic version of Riverdance as envisioned by energetic Courtland males, and a delightful choreography involving a bevy of neon-garbed beauties wielding folding lawn chairs. Fun day, or days, indeed.

We were surprised at the number of young people and children present, and of how many events were created with them in mind. From banging on drums and skillets, making paper umbrellas for drinks, rooting through piles of corn for quarters and nickels and dimes, to the gigantic slip-and-slide in the park, children seemed to be involved in almost every facet of the celebration. They were the first to take to the streets when the music fired up in the evening and shadows hung long and the first break in the heat brought a sense of relief, and they were the last to leave when the final cords died away in the starlight. On the second day, not long after the trash men swept the streets of refuse, they were the first to emerge to congregate near the starting line for the races, barely able to contain their enthusiasm not merely as bystanders but as participants. They are the future of Courtland; they are future Courtland. 
We were also surprised at the town’s apparent prosperity, and the sheer number of volunteers it took to make everything happen. With a population of 285, almost everybody had a role of some sort, however minor. Very few towns can pull that off.

And that, perhaps, was what struck me most. When on the final afternoon I stood atop the elevator and snapped four frames, one for each cardinal direction, little did I know that I was looking at the past and the future. There wasn’t much to see other than endless agricultural fields disappearing into misty horizons and the long shadow of the elevator stretching into the east along the railroad tracks, but that emptiness spoke of constant change. 

In 1885, when the town was founded, the county population stood at about 17,000 people. It was the frontier, the vanguard of western expansion. Five years later, when the first U.S. Census of Population was released, the director of the Census Bureau announced that the American frontier was closed. American settlement had reached the Pacific Ocean. The process of filling in the gaps began in earnest. In 1893, during an address to the American Historical Association, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper on the significance of the frontier in American history, arguing that the frontier experience was critical to the definition of the American experience, especially in regions such as the Great Plains which had grown rapidly over the course of the previous century.

To Turner, the frontier was the “meeting point between savagery and civilization.” It was what every generation of Americans had returned to as they were pulled evermore westward on a continually advancing frontier line, and what had made them what they were, with a “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness,” with a “practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things… that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism.” And until Americans discovered to their chagrin that their relentless westward expansion had but one insurmountable boundary—the Pacific Ocean—the frontier in mind and reality was always on the far side of the sunset. 

The trend is now reversing. The Great Plains are emptying out. Looking west into the lowering sun I saw the new American frontier, counties defined as those having fewer than six residents per square mile. Republic County totters on the edge, with a mere seven residents per square mile, and surrounding counties are heading in the same direction. There are fewer people here now than at any time during the Courtland’s 129-year history, and the same could be said for the county as a whole. 

But Courtland is holding on. Population decline has leveled off, young families are moving back, median income is rising. It has a vibrant arts community and it really knows how to throw a party. It is a community in every sense of the word—in the best sense of the word, and it isn’t giving up like some towns that will, within our lifetimes, simply disappear from the map. That fierce, implacable determination to never give up is the same driving force that Turner ascribed to the pioneers as the foundation of the American character. 

I wondered what Turner would think if he could look down on Courtland from my aerial perch. I imagine the sight of such vast uninhabited reaches would have both confused and amazed him, for his synopsis of the closing of the frontier was not merely an analysis of the past but a premonition about the future. If, he suggested, the frontier had been so essential to the development of the quintessential American character, how would that character fare with its closing? At the time of its writing, his question had no answer. It was merely rhetorical, a means to an end, and the end was this: “And now four centuries from the discovery of America,” he wrote, “at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

Surely, then, the second period of American history was one of expansion and retreat, of boom and bust and the great outward migration to urban centers. The transformation of the Great Plains would have baffled Turner, even as if sometimes baffles its residents. Sometimes the best we can do is not enough, and sometimes our hopes and dreams burn to ashes. But prairie people are good at enduring, and good at not giving up. Looking down on Courtland, having enduring a day and a half of celebratory exuberance with the best yet to come, I had an inkling that Fun Day was more than just an annual hoe-down, but somehow symbolic of the town’s conviction about its place in the future. It would not disappear without a fight. It would not fade away with a whimper of regret. 

High above the town, on the outskirts of the new frontier, at the opening of the third period of American history, I saw Courtland rising.

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