Some of the stories I've been receiving strike this ex-pat Brit as pure Americana, and today's description of a 15-year-old's summer with his grandparents in West Kansas is a wonderful example. Reading it helps me to understand much more about the America that was before my time here--I first crossed the Atlantic in 1962 and lived in Nova Scotia for two years before coming to this country in 1964. I have lived here ever since. But the America of the 1950s eluded me, and it's my belief that much of what we're seeing in the political upheavals of today harks back to that time--the time before the anti-war, flower child events of the 1960s sparked the right-wing backlash that has dominated the political scene for half a century. What my friend Fred Thompson describes here is a Thomas Hart Benton American Midwest which is long since lost to the memory of the vast majority of our current population, but which continues to live, with nostalgic longing, in the minds of a displaced older generation. Those were the days...
By Fred Thompson
The summer of 1958 was the first great summer of my life, a landmark in my growing-up years. I was fifteen, and had just finished my sophomore year at Monmouth High School. I was 5’ 8” tall, and weighed about 125 pounds, a skinny kid. I was an average student. I did not belong to any of the leading student cliques, had not begun to drive, and had never had a girlfriend. My chief interests were swimming (I was on the swim team), and hunting small game with my .22 rifle in the patches of timber to be found on farms around the town.
My family had moved to Monmouth, Illinois, in 1953 from Dodge City, Kansas, when my dad’s company opened a new plant there. We had many relatives in Kansas, including my maternal grandparents, John and Laura Brock, who had a farm near Ensign, eleven miles west of Dodge City. In late May of 1958, my granddad called to ask if my parents would allow me to come help in the wheat harvest. At fifteen, he felt I was old enough to drive the farm roads, and could serve as truck driver, moving the harvested wheat to the co-op elevator in Ensign. I was his oldest grandson, and I think he missed me a little, and wanted the opportunity for us to get to know each other better. I was excited at the prospect of an adventure, and could barely wait for the day I’d board the westbound Santa Fe Chief.
Western Kansas is high plains, over 3000 feet in elevation. It’s dry and flat; buffalo grass prairies cover the unplanted land. When I arrived, the wheat was golden ripe and nearly ready for harvest. Granddad gave me a few truck-driving lessons. I soon learned to shift the gears and turn the wheel. After a couple of days an elderly hired man arrived to help in the harvest. His name was Jess, and he’d been working with my granddad for many years. He was a big, friendly Arkansan with a nearly unintelligible accent. It seemed we were ready to start. Then the rains came. For days.
It was not possible to take the combines into the soggy wheat fields, so we had to wait for them to dry. Granddad, Jess, and I passed the time playing cards. They taught me pitch, which I was terrible at. We’d also play dominoes and checkers, which granddad always won. I also read paperback books in granddad’s collection—Mickey Spillane, and the like.
My grandmother arranged to introduce me to a kid my age who lived in Ensign, Bob Brauer. He came to pick me up one evening after supper. He had a battered old pickup truck, and after introductions, he drove me into town. He stopped a gas station and while the attendant was putting gas in the truck, Bob went inside and returned with two bottles of Coors Beer. Bob was fifteen just like me, but he’d made the purchase with complete assurance. He popped the caps and handed a bottle to me. I drank the first beer of my life that night. Later he introduced me to another Ensign kid, Mike Sayre. The three of us saw each other nearly every night that summer. Both these guys had driver’s permits and owned vehicles. None of my friends in Illinois had cars. They smoked cigarettes openly, a habit I soon adopted, to my granddad’s amusement and my grandmother’s disapproval.
When the fields dried out we began the harvest. Jess and Granddad each drove a combine harvester around the fields. When their bins were full, they’d signal me to drive the truck alongside, and the flexible spouts would empty the wheat into the truck. I’d then drive three miles to the elevator and get in line with all the other trucks waiting to be unloaded. By the time I got back to the farm, they’d be ready to give me another load.
At noon we’d break for lunch. The three of us would drive to a café in Ensign, and join a throng of other sweating farmers. Lunch was always the same: hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. Then it was back to the fields until suppertime. In the evening grandmother would prepare roast beef, fried chicken, or hamburgers, with lots of potatoes and canned corn or green beans.
Sometimes Granddad would take a break from the combine and come sit in the truck with me and spin yarns about his youth, and his horse-and-buggy courting days with my grandmother. He’d been ready to enlist in the army during WW I just as the Armistice came and deprived him of the adventure. He had tales of the dustbowl, and the depression. He idolized FDR and the New Deal. I loved hearing his stories, and I realized I was getting to know him as a person—not just as my grandfather. He was fun!
When harvest was over, I spent several weeks on a tractor turning over stubble in the fields with a one-way plow. I’d go shirtless and soon was burned brown by the sun. In the evenings I’d hang out with Bob and Mike. 1958 was a plague year for jackrabbits—they were everywhere you looked. Some evenings we’d take our .22s and drive the country roads while riding the fenders of Bob’s old truck. The rabbits would be frozen in the headlights, and we’d slaughter them by the dozens.
One evening near the end of summer, I was invited on a double date with Mike and his girlfriend, Ingrid. They’d arranged for an Ensign girl named Patty Reinert to be my date. After our movie, Patty and I were left alone together. I somehow summoned the courage to kiss her. To my surprise, she melted into my arms, and then she opened her mouth and began probing mine with her tongue! I nearly fainted. I fell in love with Patty right there. My parents were coming out to pick me up soon. I resolved to ask them to let me stay in Ensign and finish school. I’d never find a girl like her again. They didn’t go for it, of course.
It had been an unforgettable summer: I’d learned to drive; I’d held a responsible job and worked beside grown men; I’d bonded with my grandfather; I’d learned to smoke cigarettes; and I’d always have the memory of that kiss.