Today is her birthday. She’s 150 years old. When she was born in 1861, she became part of a nation about to embark on a bitter Civil War. In the days and years since then, she’s seen several more wars, survived the Great Depression, nearly choked to death from the grit of her own soil during the Dust Bowl, gave birth to many great natives included President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, and countless others too numerous to mention. SHE is KANSAS.
Today, she is known as the “Wheat State”, the crown jewel of states centered in the HEART of America’s “heartland”, the breadbasket of the world. To the rest of the world, she is best known for the movie “The Wizard of Oz”, a movie that needs no explanation. That’s the universal appeal she attracts to herself.
But Kansas is so much more than that. The reason I know is because I was BORN there and that’s where my HEART will always be. Though I live now in an area of our nation known as “paradise” to many here in Southern California and elsewhere, I’d like to tell them and everyone else, don’t EVER judge a book by its cover. Make NO mistake, Kansas has its own forms of “paradise.”
Two days ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Moving On.” In that particular chapter, I described some of what my life was like during my stay in Kansas, but only highlighted a few short months during 2009, a time when I was about to discover that “moving on” and leaving her would be best. I’d like to expand on that topic now, in addition to talking a little more about my home state.
I believe there’s a common thread here. Many times over the past nearly three years, I’ve spoken often of HEART when it comes to describing my own life, both now and in the past. I believe it’s no coincidence that I was born in the state that’s located in nearly the exact center of America, in the middle of America’s “heartland.” Kansans can be described in many ways but one I firmly believe all who were born there that we ALL share in common is our HEART. THAT’s what Kansas is all about.
My own memories of Kansas, of course, can be traced back to childhood. My sisters, all FIVE of them, and I grew up together on a farmstead located 2 miles west of Tribune, Kansas. It was here that many of the memories stay alive in my mind’s eye. Being the only boy and growing up in a house with ONE bathroom and five sisters all scrambling to look their best every morning before school led to a LOT of challenges! I’ll spare you the details on that but you can probably surmise that the great outdoors was not only my playground, but where I spent much of my time working. I recall getting up very early every day before school to feed the horses, make sure the grain feeders were working properly for our hogs and, in the winter, chopping ice on water troughs for the animals to have something to drink. In later years when my Dad expanded the hog operation to several hundred animals, he’d get me up at sometimes 4 in the morning before school so we could process a semi-truckload of 35 pound baby pigs hauled to our farm all the way from Missouri. Dad would stand near the back gate of the truck to push them into the chute, King, our Australian Shepherd dog would nip at their backsides through cracks in the chute to further them along, and at the end, it was my job to make sure they all jumped and took a bath in the “dipping vat”, a sort of large concrete tub built below ground filled with anti-lice solution.
But as I grew older to a teenager it was harvesting our wheat crop that got into my blood. Today, I can STILL smell the ripening of grain, can FEEL the anticipation and excitement as the day drew near when we would pull our combines into the field to begin a frenzied job of getting the crop out of the field before mother nature could take her with hail. Wheat harvest in Kansas is a VERY special time. Trucks scurrying around everywhere, getting out to the field at daybreak to “service” the combines before cutting started when the humidity came down later that morning, then staying in the fields all day, sometimes until 10 or 11 p.m. at night. Long days filled with excitement when the yields were good, disappointment when they weren’t, but still enjoyable, especially at sunset. If you’ve never seen a Kansas sunset during wheat harvest in June, I’m here to tell you it rivals ANY you’ll see anywhere in this country, including Southern California.
It takes a LOT of heart and courage to live there. The weather can be brutal, at once excruciatingly hot in the summertime and frigidly cold in the winter. And the wind. Oh, the omnipresent wind. It never stops, or so it seems. But when it does, and believe me it stops more often than one might think, is when Kansas’ beauty REALLY shines. Sitting outside on your porch on a warm summer evening, gazing at the stars unblemished by smog or pollutants. The smell of the air after one of those infamous summer thunderstorms. It’s as clean and fresh as on the day God created the heavens and the earth. Listening to the wonders of nature at night; crickets, frogs, coyotes howling in the distance, the faint hum of irrigation engines as they methodically produce power to push center pivot sprinklers over thousands of acres of corn, and the rhythmic hum of a well-jack on some far off oil well slowly pumping its precious crude to the surface. Watching fireflies dance in the dark, seeing a full moon as bright as one can possibly imagine. These are all memories that are still vivid in my mind and I will carry for the rest of my days. Kansas is truly, “Paradise”, and home where the HEART is.