The following memoir excerpt was first published in South Dakota Review, Volume 54, No. 2, 2018
Of Roller Skates, Hogs and My Father
My father was born in 1897 in Conway Springs, Kansas, the dusty farm town where I grew up. His parents were settlers, pioneers who had come of age on farms in the eastern part of the state before moving further west.
Dad was fifty-three when I was born. He was a father two generations removed, a plainsman who could remember life without automobiles. By the time he turned ten, he was driving steers on horseback alongside my no-nonsense grandfather—as an apprentice in the trade of ceaseless work, bridled emotions and lean prairie-speak.
As a boy, I felt distant from Dad. I revered him, but instinct led me to take my troubles—anything of the heart—to Mom. I somehow knew that my father was uncomfortable in the realm of open feelings, and I never once tried to lead him there. When I was five, he taught me how to shake hands, but he never hugged me or told me he loved me. If he sometimes put an arm around my shoulder, or ran his massive hand through my hair, I have no memory of it. Open displays of affection ran crosswise to his grain.
Now and then, Dad would take me fishing on Sunday afternoons, but only during my earliest years. Cataracts soon clotted his eyes, and he couldn’t see well enough to set floats, watch his line or navigate the rough terrain of creek banks. Although he came with Mom to all of my Babe Ruth baseball and high-school basketball games, he never played catch or shot baskets with me in our driveway. By other measures, Dad remained a vigorous man. He rode his bicycle to work every day and slogged long hours at the farm-town bank he ran. He did heavy yard work well into his seventies and refused to hire any of it out. But the dad who might have roughhoused or played sports with me—as other fathers did with their sons—had gone missing.
If I’d longed for more of my father when I was young, I would later come to understand that the stories he told formed a bridge to the back-of-the-moon side of our relationship: the closeness that continued to elude us, even in my thirties and Dad’s twilight years. In August 1987, when he was ninety and I was working in Germany, I went home to Conway Springs to record him.
“One of my boyhood enterprises,” Dad began on our third day of taping, “was a partnership with Bill Burris, a roller skate parts business. The town had no set grade in front of homes to put sidewalks on, so they passed what they called the Sidewalk Ordinance. The cement boys were good ones, and pretty soon we had nice, smooth sidewalks all over town.
“After that, most kids bought a pair of roller skates—most everyone except Bill and me. We decided there was some money to be made sellin’ those kids extra wheels ‘cause they wore off pretty rapidly on the sidewalks. Cones and ball bearings, too. We had a lively business with that, and it wasn’t long until each one us of had, as profit, the equivalent of a new pair of skates. So Bill and I bought skates for ourselves, a pair each.”
Dad paused and smiled. The morning sun had begun to strike his neck as it angled through our house’s bay window. Another scorching day on the south Kansas prairie was in the making. I stood up and closed the shutters.
“So I was showin’ my skates around up at school one day,” Dad continued, “and there was a kid named Dutch Shobe who saw ‘em. He liked ‘em, too. He says, ‘What’ll you take for ‘em?’ I priced ‘em, but he said he didn’t have any money. ‘Will you take in some hogs on a deal like that?’ he says. ‘Sure,’ I say. ‘I’ll trade you the skates for hogs.’ Then Dutch says, ‘Well, you come down to the house. Come on over after school, look ‘em over. I got a bunch a hogs down there.’
“The Shobes lived in the north part of town, about where John Riggs lives now. I went over there, and there were all kinds of hogs, just all kinds of ‘em. Mr. Shobe, Dutch’s dad, had shipped ‘em in from Oklahoma or Texas, some place like that. So we agreed on five pigs, and one of ‘em weighed about two hundred pounds, almost ready for market. I said to myself, ‘I’ll make money on that one!’
“How I got the hogs home I don’t know, but I did get ‘em up to the house. Your granddad had a little wagon for deliverin’ meat to customers, and I must’ve used that. Anyway, I got those five pigs up to the house here and put ‘em in the barn lot. And I was just thinkin’, ‘Boy, I’ve made a good deal.’”
My father paused again, as if to let me catch up with him and his wagonload of hogs.
“My dad came home,” he went on. “I can see him yet, standin’ there in that lot amid those pigs. His question was, ‘Where’d you get the pigs?’ I told him, and he just shook his head. ‘What’re you shakin’ your head for?’ I say. ‘Is there somethin’ wrong with the pigs?’ And your granddad says, ‘Those pigs are sick.’ ‘Sick?’ I say. ‘Yes!’ he says. ‘They’ve got the cholera!’”
Dad, whose voice had begun to crack, laughed.
“Well, if a pig gets the cholera,” he said, “he dies.”
“They probably died pretty quickly then, didn’t they?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. They don’t even try to doctor ‘em. They just let ‘em die and hope they won’t start up somebody else’s pig pen. But Old Man Shobe, you see, had about three hundred of ‘em out here, and he’d got stuck on ‘em.”
Dad laughed again, harder this time.
“So I lost the skates and had the pleasure—I don’t remember now where we had the ceremony—of helping dig the grave for those pigs. Somewhere out here,” he said with a wave of his hand toward our back yard.
“Right out here in back?” I asked.
“Well, we probably took ‘em down to where we fed cattle, a mile south of here.”
After Dad finished, we sat without speaking. I’d heard his Dutch Shobe story before, but I wanted to linger with it, to let his just-spoken words whisk me out of our house, down to my grandfather’s feedlot and into that long-ago day when he buried his hogs. I wanted to be there—not in my mind, but there in fact. In that time, feet on the ground. In the breath of it.
Now, thirty years after recording Dad, I’m still trying to horn my way into the present tense of his separate past, where I would surely find more of him and more of myself, if only I could go there—if only I could will myself to the far side of time, into the half-century he lived before me.
It’s difficult, but sometimes I come awful damn close to pulling it off—so close, in fact, I’m just a blink short of riding in a wagon on a bitter morning in January 1909, Dad on my left, five dead hogs and two shovels laid out behind us. There, on the other side of my father, sits J.N. Hunt, my grandfather, reins in hand as we lumber along the two-rut trail to his feeding and killing ground south of town. Neither of them can see me, of course, for I am decades yet from my naming. But perhaps Dad, who is twelve now, feels my yet-to-form ribs jostling his own in the wagon’s pitch and jerk.
An icy wind pummels us, a merciful blast that clears the stench of the now-bloated hogs. In Dad’s whiskerless face there is shame—the humiliation of having been duped by Dutch, of having tried to emulate his entrepreneurial, critter-savvy father and failing. My grandfather’s face is harder to read, but I see in it no anger or disgust, no disappointment or disapproval—just weathered lines and a resolve to deal with what is, to get these hogs buried.
As we turn west off the trail and into the feedlot, I spot Mr. Painter, my grandfather’s hired man, standing next to the shed where salted cowhides are curing in stacks. He’s got the .32 rifle our family keeps out here and is taking aim at a fat steer to shoot it between the eyes—at close range so he can’t miss. The rifle cracks. The animal drops. Mr. Painter’s not liquored up today, not yet at least, not like the afternoon Dad saw him shoot and shoot and shoot and never hit the young boar he was supposed to scald, scrape and bring to town.
J.N. flicks the reins, heads the team south again and drives fifty yards downwind from the pen where Painter skins his fresh-shot steer. “This is far enough,” he says. “We’ll do it here.” The three of us climb down, but there are only two shovels, so I step aside to let Dad and my grandfather work. They begin to dig at the end of the wagon. The first six inches of pasture are ice-hard, but the soil softens below that and, at two feet, gives way to sand and red clay. Dad and my grandfather dig and dig. As I stand nearby, I think ahead sixty-eight years to 1977 and the last time I will help Dad dig through our frozen back yard and clear our root-clogged sewer. Out here on this feedlot, I see in both my grandfather and my twelve-year-old father the form Dad will still have at eighty, the by-God-I’ll-get-it-done of him.
When my grandfather deems the hole deep and wide enough, he lowers the tailgate. He grabs the hind legs of the closest hog and drags the stiff, swollen beast to the end of the wagon and lets it fall. Dad drags a second hog, my grandfather a third and so on until the dragging and falling and thudding are done and the two of them shovel the grave shut.
On the drive back to town, Dad relaxes. He has buried his shame, is at last shed of it. A grin pulls along his lips, a hint of the laughter that one day, when his years are all but spent, will rise from him on the memory of this cold morning.
And I tell myself to guard this moment, to study my father and remember the salt of him for the time when I, too, will take on flesh and dig my way through life.
In his later years, in the winding down of his long life, Dad curled back on himself, back into memory. He told his stories, moved through decades with ease, traversed the grid of his Kansas prairie with words. Of these, no two were more powerful agents of his alchemy—his admixture of place, the past and present—than the words “out here”:
“In the Depression,” Dad once said, “the lowest land price I remember was the Thew Quarter out here, a full one hundred and sixty acres, which sold for thirty-five hundred dollars.”
“Out here about two miles north, we got those cow-brutes pretty well together, and I said to your granddad, ‘How ‘bout goin’ to town?’”
“Your granddad had two carloads of cattle he’d intended to feed that fall and winter. They were out here on Slate Creek, on the Carnahan place.”
“Well, away we tore—down through the country as fast as the roads would permit. And out here about four miles by Dorsey’s place, I hit a washed-out culvert.”
“So I had the pleasure of helpin’ dig the grave for those pigs. Somewhere out here.”
“But Old Man Shobe, you see, had about three hundred of ‘em out here, and he’d got stuck on ‘em.
My father, like most prairie people, had a crow’s third eye for navigating his native terrain. Sometimes, when he invoked the phrase “out here,” his long, thin arm would needle to a specific point on the compass. On other occasions, he might turn his head a few degrees and nod in a particular direction. The precise location of his story, though only half discernible from context, if at all, was important. It mattered where something took place, which stretch of earth was trod, what angles of sun and wind were engaged, which creeks were crossed, whose farm it was.
When Dad was alive, I never took note of his “out here” descriptors, the way he tacked them into his speech, as if he were staking himself to the ground. It would take me a long time to hear them, years of living apart from the prairie, years of listening to my recordings of him, over and over until those two words seized me and I understood that I, too, am part of my father’s “out here”—that place that is always out on the land but always here, always present no matter how distant in time or space.
It’s July 31, 2013, but it might as well be any time. I’ve just been to Dodge City to visit Dad’s eighty-six-year-old nephew, and now I’m on Highway 42, driving east through Pratt and Kingman Counties toward Conway Springs. This is the route that Dad, Mom, my sister and I used to take on our way to and from vacations in Colorado in the 1950s and 60s. Always, on our way back home, we would head east from Sawyer and glide into the westernmost end of country we recognized as ours. Rich farmland. Gnarled trees along the Chikaskia River and its nameless tributaries. Slopes and swells imperceptible to those who did not grow up on the plains. Tiny towns like Zenda, Spivey and Rago and the seldom-used rail line that strings them together. Old wooden grain elevators clad in torn and rusted sheets of corrugated steel. Newer concrete elevators whose massive, white silos loom for miles above the flat land.
The road is no more traveled now than half a century ago. In the nine miles between Sawyer and Isabel, I don’t encounter a single vehicle. From Isabel to Nashville, I meet only a lone pickup. Its driver waves, as if he knows I am of this place, this expanse of earth and wind-soaked silence.
The land pulls me into early years. I can see my parents and sister heading west to Colorado in a big-fin Cadillac, and I am in the car with them. As I roll east in my 2013 rental car, I draw close to the oncoming Cadillac, close enough to make out Dad’s face through our bug-spattered windshields. He hasn’t lost his right eye yet, is still at the wheel. And then it hits me: I am moving in two directions, hurtling both east and west toward myself and gaining speed in the pull of the two cars’ imminent crossing.
The Cadillac zooms past, and I begin to slow down. I see Dad, stroke-ridden, flat on his back as we said farewell in November 1989. I see Mom as she drew her last breath two years ago this month. I think of our house in Conway Springs, the 119 years our family lived in that town, the sale we closed on Valentine’s Day last year. All of it gone. Gone for good.
And yet, as I drive further east, I realize that Dad and I are still drifting across the eons. We’re still headed down an empty Kansas road in an old Cadillac. Highway 42 still winds through the 1950s and 60s—within me but also outside of me in some place real and close by, so close I can almost touch, hear and smell it. Just as it was.
On this summer afternoon in 2013, I cross the fertile land and look to the long horizon. I lower the window and inhale the sharp scent of wild sunflowers and pungent creek bottoms. A mile west of Adams, I pull over to the shoulder, stop and get out. Legions of grasshoppers arc through high weeds, and I am lost in the pulsing din of their electric wings, the fire-burst of their staccato flapping. The Chikaskia’s cottonwoods shimmer and rustle, their DNA drawn from the ancients standing in their midst—dead, white-bleached ancestors whose bony fingers curl skyward, as if to claw something unseen back to earth.
I get back in the car and push on toward Conway Springs. Time bends along the road, and for long minutes, I float. Like an amphibian in primordial brine, I am out here, on the land-sea Dad and I claim as ours.
If he were here at my side, I would tell Dad that his stories from the time before me are as much mine now as his. I would speak of my first memories of him and the twin plains of their haunting: 1950s southern Kansas and the boundless expanse he still roams within me, tall and swift, young and unfettered. I would weave us back into the years we shared, the times when he drew me as close as he could—in the way of his place, the way of our prairie people.
If he were at my side, I would tell Dad that silence is enough for me now. I would ask him to get in the car. I would drive the two of us a mile west and a half north of Conway Springs. We would get out on the sandy road, slip through a barbed wire fence. Through pastures choking with milkweed, along a spring-fed stream spiked with cattails, I would lead my half-blind father all the way back to Tall Trees, the secluded pools he fished as a boy more than a hundred years ago—the place he took me when I was young.
There, we would breathe the musk of muddy banks, the sharp-nosed stew of creek-side weeds reaching for sun. We would look up into cottonwoods and listen to the soft clatter of their silver-green crowns.
We would drift along the Kansas wind into endless summer and never leave.