Sunday, July 19, 2015

Kansas, 1976


Kansas, 1976
By Fred Owens


The car broke down and we found a campsite on the Smoky Hill River just outside of Lindsborg, Kansas. It was July, 1976, and we were newlyweds. The Travel All was not a reliable vehicle, as we found out, and it broke down. So there we were in Kansas and it was hot.
I had a world view that all the earth was sacred, not just the pretty places. Not just snow-capped mountains and towering trees, lush landscapes, rushing rivers and beautiful islands  -- all that from the Skagit Valley in Puget Sound where I had spent some time, but now crossing the Plains and seeing the flat, featureless landscape, not pretty enough for a post card, and never going to be "saved," or cherished as it should be cherished. 

My father taught me to dance with all the girls not just the pretty ones, and don't act like you're doing anybody a favor either, he said. I transferred that thinking from girl friends to landscapes  -- to see the beauty in all things.
That made Kansas in July all right -- hot, flat and square as it was.
So when the Travel All broke down we camped by the river, and then we walked into Lindsborg, about 3,000 people surrounded by wheat fields, sunflowers and a big blue sky. Lindsborg seemed good enough and we found work, first at a diner. We spent three days scrubbing grease off the walls and going under the counters, as the owner of the diner was glad to find some awful chore that we might do for him and we got a bit of cash to hold us over.
Then we found jobs at a small factory that made aluminum windows -- about twenty people worked there. They had a simple foundry that melted the aluminum ingots and then squeezed the lava into an extruder that made long lengths of window frames.
The outside air temperature approached 100 degrees on most days, and it was very hot inside the factory, but it was a spacious facility with tall ceilings and wide garage doors that let in the fresh air. It was tolerable and not toxic.
There were maybe 10 people on the assembly line. We made windows for apartment projects in Wichita and other big cities. so we would make like 50 of one size, then 100 of another size, and so on, filling orders. They cut aluminum lengths into the right size and stamped them into a frame, then sent them down to me. I was the glass cutter.
That's where they put the new guy because you could get hurt handling large panes of glass, although I never imagined I would get hurt and I never did get hurt. I didn't even wear gloves. I handled hundred of panes of glass and broke a lot of glass doing so. I found out quickly that they didn't care if I broke any glass. All they cared about was could I speed up and stay with the line as the frames came by.
I worked on a big table. Grab the frame off the line, then grab a pane of glass to fit over the frame, then scribe it twice by hand and break off the overlapping part of the glass. Then put the frame with glass back on the line and grab the next empty frame. Do it fast a thousand times, and if you break any glass, just toss it in this bin. Fast is all that mattered.
It was the most boring job I ever had in my whole life although I can't complain about the people. The supervisor was a nice guy. We had coffee breaks and lunch breaks  and we sat outside on the grass in the shade of a tree. Got paid better than minimum wage.
Writing this 39 years later, I think it was easier to get started in life in 1976. We camped. We found jobs. We got paid. Then we rented a small apartment. Just like that. Instant family. Mom and Dad.
I paid money to get the Travel All fixed. I liked that vehicle but it did not like me. It would not serve, but we drove it as we could. Sometimes in the evening, when it was cooler, we drove out to Coronado Heights -- a small hill, but in Kansas this was the biggest hill for a hundred miles and when you drove up to the top you could see a long way in every direction  -- solid wheat fields and a big, big horizon. Soft breezes on a summer evening. It was said, not proven, that Coronado, the Spanish conquistador, came here in his journey across Kansas in 1541.
We rented an apartment in back of the Swedish Bakery. It was a red-brick  building, had been a shop or a garage, converted for living with a functional bathroom, a kitchen area and a painted cement floor. It was like a large studio apartment with a high ceiling. It kind of looked like the factory where we worked, only smaller. The alley was clean of garbage but full of weeds and tall grass. This was actually a good feature -- the lack of garbage and the tall slovenly weeds -- made it kind of homey.
And we could walk into the back door of the Swedish Bakery, through the baking area, up to front where people had coffee and bought their sweet rolls. It always smelled nice from the bakery.
Lindsborg was founded by Swedish immigrants and so much different from your mythical redneck Republican hard core farm town in Kansas -- different in its pronounced Scandinavian flavor and its civic concern for the average resident. Lindsborg had a municipal swimming pool of grand proportions, a park with a band shell for summer performances, a four-year liberal arts college with a Lutheran affiliation -- that was Bethany College. Lindsborg had its own electrical power plant and a proficient, small industrial area -- that's where the small factory was where we worked. To cap it all, they promoted their Swedish heritage with trinkets and festivals and that made for a prosperous downtown retail center. Lindsborg was a small town just waiting to be "discovered."

Anyway, it was better than your average bozo small town, at least to our liking. And that's where the car broke down -- the Travel All  -- worst car I ever owned, but at least it broke down in the right place -- could have broke down in Oklahoma and thank God we got out of there.
We camped by the Smoky Hill River. As I said, we were newly weds and we had gotten out of Oklahoma. We cooked our dinner over a fire and after that she waded into the river to wash the dishes in the stream. She lost her wedding ring doing that. It just slipped off. It was a simple band, no big dollar loss, but I took it as a bad sign -- not like it was her fault or anything like that, but just bad luck.
I was 30 years old that summer and we had gotten married, expecting to have children and get jobs and buy a house and do all that regular kind of stuff. No more hippie stuff. No communes, no fantasies, no hitchhiking, no riding freight trains, no making shelters out of plastic sheets, no organic wonder gardens. None of that. Not like a rejection or a feeling that we had done anything wrong. No, it was just we were finished. Had gotten ourselves certified with a Ph.D. in advanced Hippie Studies and it was time for whatever came next, which for us was a big dose of normal.
It didn't help at all that I had decided to become a writer three weeks before the car broke down. Not a good career choice if I was looking for normal. I wish somebody had talked to me about that. I wished my Dad was still alive. He would have liked my new wife a lot. A pretty one, he might have said. And settling down to start a family, yes, he would have liked that a lot, and said so, and backed me up on things, even if I wanted to be a writer -- he might have cautioned my about the uncertainty of that income.
I'm thinking all this many years later, but not at that time. All I knew is that I had turned 30 and gotten married and I needed to become something, so all I could figure out was to be a writer. I bought a portable manual typewriter while we lived in the alley apartment in back of the Swedish Bakery and I began to write -- probably ten words a day at most. It didn't flow.
This is a short story, so I will wrap it up. Susan became pregnant and this baby didn't want to be born in Kansas so we left after a  few months. We moved to Chicago and I got another job, but I will tell that some other time.
Kansas, to this day, remains unappreciated.
What Prompted This Story. A young woman I know in Bellingham, Washington, talked about the incredibly high price of real estate in her area -- she said you just couldn't buy a home unless you have family money.  That's true on the West Coast, the sky high prices. But you're paying for the view and good looks are superficial. If you want value, you might consider Omaha, or Wichita, or St. Louis, places like that, less trendy, but you can have your own place.

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Fred Owens
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