A half-century or so ago, I was a young man and an avid pheasant hunter.
That was not particularly unusual in the early 1960s. Kansas was noted for pheasant hunting back then and opening weekend saw much traffic headed for the western half of the state.
Many groups of hunting buddies had standing reservations at motels and hotels in small towns that would double and triple in population for that weekend. A half-hour or so before sunrise Saturday morning would see groups of five, six, even ten shotgun-toting men standing at the edge of a farmer’s field impatiently awaiting for the darkness to give way so they could see their beautiful prey as he lifted into the Kansas sky with a cackle and a burst of iridescent tail feathers.
But I was of a different breed. I grew up with natural inclination tending toward introversion and that carried over to my hunting preferences.
I hunted alone.
“Nobody hunts pheasant alone!”, I’d heard countless times. “You’d never get them up! They’d just run right past you and you’d never see ‘em.”
Well, my Brittany Spaniels and I DID see ‘em and would usually have all we wanted by nine or ten a.m.
Then I’d spend the remainder of the day doing what I loved to do even more than pheasant hunt.
I’d wander through the myriad abandoned houses that dotted this landscape back then, the legacy of the great depression, subsistence-level farming and several years of drought and dust storms that crushed the dreams of a generation that came of age in the years before WWII.
The pheasant hunt was the excuse. The true objective was exploring the places that were home to a generation of earlier Kansans struggling to eke a hard-scrabble living walking behind a team of mules and trying to coax a crop from marginal, rain-starved soil.
So the shotgun would go behind the seat of the truck and my beloved companion, Pretty Miss Candy and I would investigate an earlier generation.
It wasn’t unusual to find the furniture, clothing and kid’s toys left behind, as if the last sudden, dust-laden, choking wind had strapped the last bit of will from a hard-working couple, who just loaded the kids up in the Model T while there was still enough money to buy gasoline to go … Where? — Well, anywhere — maybe a town where a man could hope to find a job in a factory or in construction.
A town where the rain fell occasionally to settle the dust …
That didn’t happen here, on the edge of civilization; this land bordering the craggy, prickly-pear-cactus-covered, canyon-filled northwest corner of Kansas, where the Arikaree Breaks (http://www.kansastravel.org/arikareebreaks.htm) hadn’t changed much in the century since the Cheyenne and Comanche, the Kiowa and the Pawnee hunted buffalo and ruled the land.
As I picked up the old, battered, dirt-covered doll, I could almost hear the laughter. The kids playing outside on an old rope swing.
Mom putting the bread in the wood-fired oven; the last of the flour, wondering where the money would come from to buy more when they headed to town on Saturday.
Hoping that the grocer would extend credit for just one more week.
Dad, standing in the doorway, looking anxiously toward the darkening sky to the southwest, praying that is was a much-needed rain cloud.
But knowing in his heart that it was another dust storm.
“Mother, looks like another one comin’. I’m going to get the cows and mules into the barn. Get the kids in and start covering the cracks ‘round the window. I’ll draw a couple of buckets of water from the well and be back soon as I can to help.”
The wheat was near ready to harvest when that final storm hit. The whole crop smashed flat and covered with three inches of fine, dry soil that rightfully belonged to the neighbors to the southwest.
The same dust covered every flat surface in the house. Floors, tables, beds; it even sifted into the cabinets.
His chest heaved in a heart-rendering sigh. “That’s it!” he thought to himself. “That’s all she wrote. We’re done!”
Then aloud. “Well, mother, I’m gonna run into town and see if I can talk the grocer into accepting the cows as payment for our bill. “I’ll stop by the bank and tell Mr. Chambers the farm is his. Pack up what’ll fit in the truck and just as soon as I get back, we’re gone from here.”
Maybe I can sell the mules for enough gas to get us to Wichita or Kansas City. I hear they’re hiring at the Ford plant on the Missouri side. Or maybe I can catch on at that new bomber plant in Fairfax.”
The wail of a coyote started me from my reverie. It has grown dark while I was daydreaming. The chill of the early November night wasn’t the sole cause of the shiver that coursed down my backbone.
Candy looked up at me expectantly. The howling coyote had made her nervous. She was probably hungry, too.
I looked down at the ragged, soiled doll in my hand. I was tempted to take it with me.
But instead, I dusted off the seat of a nearby chair resting precariously on three legs.
“Goodbye, little girl. I sure hope your family found good times when the left you.”
Candy and I walked to our old Ford pickup and climbed into the cab.
I was pretty sure that the fleeting image at the edge of headlight beam was the coyote that had just serenaded us.
But it might have been someone looking for their doll …