Country Editor's Boy, p.1Hal Borland
Country Editor’s Boy
It was for ripeness in and all around us
That winter passed and spring and summer found us.
About the Author
THIS IS A STORY of youth—the transition years of a boy, of a town, of the culture of an area. Because I happened to be the boy, it is autobiography; but because the area was the High Plains of eastern Colorado and the time was those years when the Old West was passing and the New West was emerging, it partakes of social history. The town itself was young, but it too began to grow up in those years. The area—well, people and their towns are young or middle-aged or old, but the land itself is almost beyond ageing, except in the millennial terms of geology. The area itself did not much change, but change was wrought upon it.
It was a time when we still heard echoes and already saw shadows, on moonlit nights when the coyotes yapped on the hilltops and on hot summer afternoons when mirages shimmered, dust-devils spun across the flats, and towering cumulus clouds sailed like galleons across the vast blueness of the sky. Echoes of remembrance of what men once did there, and visions of what they would do tomorrow.
We heard the echoes of prayer chants, war chants, hunting chants of Arapaho and Cheyenne. We saw the hills dark with buffalo, more buffalo than man could count, meat to feed the plains people forever; and we heard the echoing rifle shots of the buffalo killers, who took tongues and hides and left the carcasses for the carrion eaters, the bones for us to find in the eternal grass forty years later. We saw the shadowy herds trailing north, Texas cattle, heard the echoes of their bawling, their hoof-and-horn rattle, the sad chants of their night herders. We saw the railroad builders come, thrusting steel rails westward, rod by rod, heard their grunt-and-heave, their profane brag, their spike hammers ringing, smelled their sweat, watched the black-smoke locomotive and the clanking iron wheels follow them, mile by mile.
We saw, heard, smelled, felt, almost tasted the past.
We saw the homesteaders come, saw them string their barbed wire, plow their shallow furrows, plant their corn, build their dugouts and soddies and new-pine shanties. We saw them come and we saw them go, drouthed out, grasshoppered out, plain discouraged out; and always a few, a steadily growing number of them, hanging on by their teeth and their broken fingernails, bellies full of jack rabbit and cornmeal mush and plain sand-grit. Settling up the country. We heard the first chuff and cough of tractors, saw them ripping up the sod, the buffalo-grass sod that had been there since the last Ice Age, and planting wheat. In the heat of July afternoons we heard the harvesters come with their clatter and rumble and roar, saw their clouds of dust and chaff, watched the golden river of grain flow from high, far fields to the railroad in a stream of trucks that never let the dust settle. We felt the bite on our cheeks, tasted the grit between our teeth, when dust-devils danced across the harvested fields, forerunners of black blizzards of desolation still to come.
We saw, heard, smelled, felt, tasted the new, displacing the old.
We who were young in that time and place were fortunate to know something of that old heritage at the same time that we were growing up into the new. Actually, in that area—and I am sure it must have been true in many other parts of this country too—the nineteenth century did not end with the 1890s. It persisted, and the twentieth century did not really take over until some time between 1915 and 1920; not until after World War I in our area. And it is about those years, that time of change from one century to another, which happened to defy the calendar, that I am writing here.
This book is a companion story to the one I told in High, Wide and Lonesome, and in terms of time it is a sequel. In the earlier book I wrote of a frontier vanishing before the eyes of a boy who lived on a homestead under primitive pioneer conditions. Here I have written of that same boy, now somewhat older and somewhat more civilized, at least amenable to life in a community. And I have written of that boy’s father and mother, both somewhat changed by the homestead experience. The boy himself is in the process of basic, inevitable change; not only is he no longer a pioneer, but he is growing up, still in transition from one age to another but reaching toward adulthood. The fact that I was the boy in the earlier book and the youth in this one does not in any way alter the background or the history. It merely makes possible a firsthand account with more truth than if I were writing about someone else. Actually, at this point in life I look back at that boy, that youth, as someone I knew intimately years ago and miles away, but definitely not as the self I now know and am. But I did know him better than I could possibly know anyone else, so it is his story that I have told.
It is always difficult to achieve perspective on the past that we have known, particularly if it has been a time of swift and profound change. I remember things my father said when, in his late fifties, he was asked what it was like to be a pioneer. Father said, “I don’t know. I wasn’t a pioneer.”
“But,” the interviewer said, “you were one of the earlier settlers here in eastern Colorado, weren’t you?”
“Not particularly early. We came in nineteen ten. There were at least two big waves of homesteaders before we came, but not many of them stayed. The ranchers were here before those homesteaders. The ranchers began to settle here soon after the Civil War.”
“Was the land really settled up when you came?”
“No. Our closest neighbor was a sheep camp, a herder and a couple thousand head of sheep. And the camp closed for the winter.”
“You came to Flagler in nineteen fifteen?”
“That’s right. Flagler was a growing town by then. It wasn’t settled for several years after the railroad came through in eighteen eighty-seven, but it wasn’t a primitive settlement, by any means, in nineteen fifteen.”
It is a matter of definition. Father was using dates and years as his criterion. Actually, we were pioneers on the homestead; we built the first house on that land, dug the first well, plowed its sod for the first time. And he was, if not actually a pioneer editor, at least the editor of a weekly newspaper in a town just turning from the old to the new when he arrived. To me, a pioneer is one who helps create a new line of thought or action, and in that sense he was a pioneer editor. He was one of the principal forces for change.
So, as I was saying, this is a story of change. With it I have completed my account of how one small family, and especially the son of that family, experienced the transition in one semi-isolated area from the early, primitive life of the sod-house frontier to the modern age between that son’s small boyhood and his manhood. Others have written many accounts of the past half century’s intense urbanization, its social and economic turmoil, its technological domination, and its incessant wars, between man and man, man and the elements, man and his own environment. I would not add to that list. But not many of us have been hurtled from the equivalent of the 1850s to the 1920s in a single decade, and still fewer of us have written about that experience.
In High, Wide and Lonesome I wrote that “a frontier is never a place; it is a time and a way of life…. Frontiers pass, but they endure in their people.” Because I still believe that, I have written this book. The memories should endure. Unless we know where we ca
THREE THINGS HAPPENED THAT day. Four, counting the rain storm, though rain doesn’t just happen on the high, dry plains; rain comes or it doesn’t, and men thrive or go broke according to the rain. But a boy gets his first long pants only once, there is a first time you see the mountains, and only a few times in your life do you meet a strange man who says things you will always remember.
We were moving, my mother and I, to join my father in a new, strange town where he had bought a weekly newspaper. Flagler was only a little over a hundred miles south of Brush, but to get there we had to travel more than twice that distance on two sides of a huge triangle, first to Denver on the Burlington train, then back to Flagler on a Rock Island train, with several hours’ wait in Denver between trains. And although we had lived in Colorado five years, neither Mother nor I had ever seen Denver.
We were to catch the midmorning train out of Brush. The household goods had been packed and shipped and we had spent the night with friends. At the last minute, just as we were about to board the train, an argument arose about my dog, Fritz. The station agent had said Fritz could travel in the baggage car with only a leash and an express tag, but the trainman in the baggage car insisted that all dogs must be muzzled. Finally the conductor, impatient at the delay, settled it. “Get that dog on board,” he ordered. “If he bites you, bite him back. We can’t wait all day.” So Fritz was taken in the baggage car, we settled ourselves in a coach, and we were off. But I was too worried about Fritz, and too excited, to pay much attention to details of the trip to Denver. When we arrived in the Union Station I wanted to go to the baggage room and see if Fritz was all right, but Mother said no, it would just start the argument all over again. So we checked our valises and went out for our first look at Denver.
We went out into Seventeenth Street, through the big iron grillwork arch that bridged the street and held high its legend, “Welcome.” Up Seventeenth Street as far as I could see lay Denver, a maze of clanging trolley cars, clattering horse-drawn drays, crowds of people on the sidewalks. The street was lined with a bazaar of shops, café’s and warehouses. I vaguely remembered Lincoln and Omaha, back in Nebraska, but Denver was nothing like either of them. Denver roared and clanged with a wholly different air, an air of ranches and mines and sawmills and energetic business. It was several years before I saw the new, beautiful, expensive Denver that lay beyond that cheap, rundown, railroad station area of tourist traps and laborers’ supplies. That day, the first time I saw it, it was a wonderful, almost incredibly busy place.
We walked slowly up the street, staring at the brightly lighted windows filled with catch-penny wares. We passed dark chili parlors that breathed spicy fragrance and loud laughter, hurrying past them as though they were barrooms. We paused at clothing stores whose windows were crammed with boots and hats and work shirts and Levis. We drew back from a huge dray drawn by a four-horse team of big, dappled Percherons as it came out of a dark alleyway. Mother glared and stiffened as two women, their faces rouged and their clothes exaggeratedly fashionable, passed us, laughing and watching the men along the street. And then we came to a clothing store with a few dress shirts and several pairs of blue serge trousers in a far corner of its cluttered window. We stopped and looked and finally Mother said, “Come on,” and we went inside.
An eager, smiling clerk greeted us and Mother said, “I want to look at long trousers for my son, something to match his suit.”
What happened after that is still a confused memory. At the time I scarcely knew what was happening. Long pants, my first long pants! In those days, long pants were a sign that a boy was no longer a boy; he was a man. Perhaps not quite a man, if his voice was still changing, as mine was, but no longer really a boy. On the homestead I often had a man’s responsibility and I usually wore overalls, long pants of a sort. But after we left the homestead and moved to Brush I was a schoolboy in knickerbockers. I had left Brush in a blue serge knickerbocker suit. Now, though I wanted long pants more than anything else in the world, I wasn’t ready for manhood all at once.
There was bargaining, I am sure of that, and there was argument over color and material. But eventually Mother chose a pair that almost matched my jacket. I do remember that she argued the price down from three dollars to two dollars and a half. Then I tried them on, the clerk measured them for length, promised to have them ready in an hour, and we went out into the street again.
We started back to the station, I still in a daze. We were almost there when Mother stopped, caught my arm, and exclaimed, “Look!” Off to the west, in a gap between two tall buildings, was the incredible loom of the mountains twenty miles away. They were huge, bare and rocky. Beyond them rose other mountains, dark and green with trees, countless mountains. We stared at them, fascinated, and we turned down a side street and walked two or three blocks to a place where we could see them better. The sun shone on them, almost glinting, and big, high clouds cast dark shadows that climbed their slopes as we watched. They looked only a few miles away in the clear, thin Colorado air. Seeing them, I knew that some day I would have to go to them, climb them, see what lay beyond. But not now. Now they were a barrier, a rugged obstacle to eyes familiar with the flat immensity of the plains. I was both a plainsman and a boy, the long pants quite forgotten in that breathless moment; I wanted no part of such barriers, no hemming in. I was glad we weren’t moving to a town in the mountains. Flagler was a plains town where, Father had written, you could see forty miles in any direction.
We went back to the station and ate the box lunch Mother had brought with us. By then the hour was almost up, so we went back to the clothing store and I put on the new, long, blue serge pants. The clerk made a package of my knickerbockers and we returned to the station. The pants flapped around my ankles and I felt as conspicuous as though I hadn’t any pants at all. Then I remembered my stockings and felt better. Beneath those new trousers I still wore the long black cotton stockings of boyhood. I wore those stockings, literally as well as figuratively, for months, until my voice began to find its stable register, until the boyhood stockings were worn out and could be replaced with adult socks.
Our train was ready and waiting. We got our valises from the checkroom, went aboard, chose seats in a coach. The green plush seats had a look and feel that still means train travel to me, and the whole train had that warm, faintly sweet, musty odor tinged with coal smoke that gave way to the smell of sweat and stale tobacco smoke only when the diesel displaced the coal-burning mogul. There was a turmoil of voices, the rattle of baggage trucks, and finally the echoing, “All aboooard!” Doors slammed, iron platforms clanged, and the train began to move. I settled down to watch the passing streets, the factory clutter and tenement confusion of drab, rundown houses, littered back yards, grimy washings on sagging lines, that has marked the urban trackside as long as I can remember. And finally we were out in the open country again, heading southeast, angling back on the second side of that huge triangle.
The train clack-clacked on the rails, the telegraph poles flew past, the locomotive hooted at an occasional crossing, the plume of dark smoke streamed past, and when I looked back the mountains had begun to sink into the western horizon. Ahead and on both sides lay the plains, green with mid-June as far as the eye could reach, gently rolling and without a tree in sight. Here and there was a distant, lonely house, a homesteader’s soddy with its nearby barn and privy, and from time to time there was a lone windmill with its low, round galvanized tank, a watering place for some ranchman’s cattle.
We stopped at a series of small towns, those nearest Denver bright with paint and kempt with care; but the paint diminished and the green of lawns thinned away as we left Denver farther and farther behind. Otherwise the towns were much alike, each with a main street leading down to the railroad station, the street lin
Mother was very quiet. She probably was wondering, as I was, if Flagler would be like these towns, or better, or worse. Of the five years since we left Nebraska, the years on the homestead had been the most difficult she had ever known, years that would mark her character all her life. To me they had been fascinating, though they have shaped my life, too. Father almost died of typhoid fever; we lost our horses when they ate death camass, a poisonous weed; we sometimes had nothing to eat but jack rabbits and cornmeal mush. But there was eventual triumph. Father proved up on the homestead, got a deed signed by President Woodrow Wilson. Then we moved to Brush, the Platte valley town where he had worked as a printer to get out of debt. He took a full-time job and we lived there a year while Father and Mother caught their breath, laid aside a few hundred dollars, and I began to catch up on my schooling.
But Brush was never more than a way station, really. Mother knew that, and so did I when I stopped to think about it. Father wanted to be his own boss, have his own newspaper. So this spring he quit his job and went to look at several papers that were for sale. He chose The Flagler News, bought it, took possession the first of May. He wrote Mother to pack up and move as soon as school was out. The News, he wrote, wasn’t much of a paper now and didn’t have much of a plant, but Flagler was a coming town and he knew he could make good there. That was six weeks ago. Now we were on the last leg of our move. To Flagler, whatever it was like.
Somewhere around Deer Trail—that town’s name still fascinates me; I doubt that there has been a deer there in a hundred years—near Deer Trail I saw a jack rabbit loping across the flats with that crooked, leisurely gait as though its legs didn’t quite track. Then I saw the ant hills, a dozen or more of them, two feet across and a foot and a half high. I pointed them out and started to talk about them to Mother. The ants that built such hills fascinated me. I had watched them for hours on the homestead. But Mother hated ants. She shook her head, not wanting to hear me talk about them.
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes