Country Editor's Boy, p.15Hal Borland
When he finished there was a roar of applause and shouts for “More! More!” He shook his head and let them shout, and he turned to the old fiddler. “Here,” he said, “is where you went off,” and he played the tricky part again, showing the fingering and the progression. “It’s easy to go off, at that place. I do it myself if I don’t watch out.” He handed the fiddle back to the old man and went over and sat down. The dance was the old man’s once more.
Later, on the way home some time after midnight, Mother asked, “Did you know Dr. Neff could play the violin that way?”
“No,” Father said. “I didn’t know he could play the violin any way.” We were in a livery rig that Father had hired, and the horses were feeling frisky.
“I wonder if he’d been drinking,” Mother said.
“Drinking? With that bunch of hard-shell Baptists!” Father began to laugh.
“Well, I hear he is a drinking man. I didn’t smell it on his breath, but he could have used Sen-Sen, or something.”
“I wonder what he drinks. If I thought it would make me play the fiddle the way he can, I might—”
“Will Borland, don’t you go talking that way! Not even if you are joking. What would people think if they heard you say a thing like that?”
Father didn’t answer. He was having to keep taut reins on the horses. But some of their friskiness must have got into him because I heard him whistling “Possum up a Gum Stump” under his breath. Mother heard him too, and finally she said, “Will Borland, you’d just as well stop trying to plague me. You’ve tried four times now, and got the tune wrong every time.”
“Just how does it go?” Father asked.
She began to hum the tune and went all the way through before she heard Father chuckling. “Well!” she exclaimed. “At least I got it right!” Then, in spite of herself, she laughed with him.
Flagler also had outside music, professional music. There were what were called lyceum programs, a series of lectures and concerts spaced through the winter months. The “talent” was sent out by an agency in Lincoln or Des Moines which made local contracts and laid out schedules and routes as far west as Utah. A group of Flagler business men signed up, guaranteed the minimum fee, then sold tickets to local people. The programs were held in Seal’s Hall and always drew a full house.
I remember nothing about the lectures, but two of the musical programs were unforgettable. One was by the Jubilee Singers. We had no Negroes in Flagler nor, as far as I knew, in the whole of Kit Carson County, and few of us had ever heard any real Negro music. We knew Stephen Foster and the minstrel show songs, but they weren’t Negro music at all, as we found out as soon as those Jubilee Singers got well under way. There was a chorus of about a dozen men, and there were quartets and soloists. They sang everything from spirituals to ballads, and I had never dreamed of anything like it, the rhythm, the syncopation, the laughter, the sorrow, and those marvelous voices. Before they arrived in town there apparently was some rather baffling correspondence with the booking office, since they would be in Flagler overnight. I don’t know what questions were raised, but they didn’t bother anyone in Flagler, whatever they were. The Jubilee Singers stayed at the hotel, just like any travelers, and they ate in the dining room there with the townsfolk. Nobody seemed to think anything of that.
The other memorable program was by the Royal Hawaiians. It was the first Hawaiian music I had ever heard, and I wish I could hear it again now. It was the first time we had seen or heard ukuleles or steel guitars. And the program ranged from the War Chant to the hulas, from beach-boy songs to dirges. They may not have been the best company of Hawaiian musicians who ever came to this country, but they had something more hauntingly beautiful than anything we had ever heard. They didn’t have any grass-skirted girls to do the hula, and they did none of the heavy-handed clowning that became a standard part of Hawaiian repertoires ten or fifteen years later. They simply played and sang Hawaiian music pretty much the way I imagine it was played and sung in the islands before our tin-pan alley boys began to tinker with it. I know I would have swapped my cello for a ukulele, and I thought then that I would throw in my shotgun, my most precious possession, if anyone wanted to swap a steel guitar.
After the Hawaiians, the cello was a very uninteresting instrument. And the Knies quintette was dull as ditch water. But I kept up my practice, though not every day, and I played with the group on special occasions at school or church. I never did become a sight reader who could sit down and play anything set on the music rack in front of me. But I became a soloist that spring. Twice I was allowed to play solo parts during informal concerts we gave. Once I played “Traumerei,” and the other time I played “The Last Rose of Summer.” Mr. Knies evidently decided that even I couldn’t ruin those two pieces.
Beyond the fact that I was a slow reader and had a good ear, I never had any distinction as a cellist. My experience with it did give me a basic course in music that I never would have had otherwise. But, just to round off this particular memory, I must report that after high school I found that the college orchestra didn’t need my degree of skill on the cello. There was an opening on a small dance band for a banjo player, so I swapped my forty-dollar cello for a thirty-five dollar tenor banjo. A few years later, after I was out of college, I swapped the banjo for a twenty-five-dollar secondhand guitar, and eventually I gave the guitar away. But I still love cello music, especially when played by someone who is at least a good journeyman musician. Casals, say.
WINTER IN A HIGH Plains town in those days was neither as dour as the small-town debunkers painted it twenty years later nor as blithe as the rural romantics said it was. It was winter, with snow and cold and bitter wind. When a blizzard swept across those treeless flats it seemed to come all the way from Saskatchewan, gathering strength with every mile. But few winters brought more than a couple of real blizzards. Snowstorms were more frequent, storms without the high wind and intense cold. And there were intervals every winter when chinooks, relatively warm, dry winds, came rolling out across the plains from the eastern slope of the Rockies and gave us periods of melt and balminess that sustained the spirit. Then we knew that eventually there would be an end to winter.
But meanwhile Flagler was, if not quite beleaguered, at least left to its own devices in facing winter’s problems. Townspeople shoveled snow off their sidewalks and dug paths to stables, chicken houses and privies. The big road grader was trundled out and pushed enough snow to the sides of the main streets so that what little traffic there was could move: the drays from the depot, the coal wagons from the lumber yards, a delivery wagon or two from the food stores to get groceries to the lame, the halt and the aged. Except where the wind blew them clear, rural roads were blocked until and unless the farmers plowed out or dug out a track. The road to Denver was impassable even for the few automobiles that might have attempted to travel it.
Actually, nobody had yet got the idea that man could, or should, be a gadabout in winter. You lived with winter and let it make the rules. The automobile was going to change all that, but we didn’t yet know it. We merely thought that the Model T was a mechanical wonder—which it was—and that with it we could break a few of the bonds of time and distance, but only a few. We didn’t own a car, but friends of ours had a Model T. Before I was through college I bought one that had been wrecked in a ditch, rebuilt it, and drove it close to a hundred thousand miles. It was unchanged, mechanically, from the Model T of 1915. It had a magneto but no battery, no starter, no lights when the motor stopped. It had three pedals that you pushed to make it start or stop or go backward. Two small levers on the steering wheel fed the gas and advanced or retarded the spark. There was no such thing known to man, in 1915, as a windshield wiper. When it rained you opened the two-pane windshield and got wet while you looked, or you stuck your head out and looked around the windshield and got soaked. Its folding top—there were no closed sedans until the 1920s—had side curtains that buttoned on, but it was the colde
The roads, still designed primarily for horse-drawn vehicles, were plowed open or a track was shoveled through the deepest drifts only where the snow was belly-deep on a horse. If the wind drifted an opened road full overnight it was up to the next traveler to find a way through or around. Travel beyond the immediate vicinity of a town was by rail, and the Rock Island had a rotary plow out clearing the rails after every storm. Even so, trains often were late and occasionally a freight got stuck in a deep-drifted cut and had to wait for a plow and a booster engine to arrive from Denver or Goodland, Kansas.
What I am trying to say is that people didn’t live such impatient, fretful lives in those days, at least not in that area. Without electricity, nobody worried that storms might take down the wires. Burning coal, you knew at a glance when the bin was getting empty; it wasn’t like burning oil from a tank hidden underground. You kept a five-gallon can of coal oil on the back porch for the lamps. You had a few bushels of potatoes, a bag of onions, a couple of bushels of apples, and a keg of cider vinegar down cellar. You had a forty-eight-pound sack of flour in the pantry, and maybe a hundred pounds of sugar and at least five pounds of roasted coffee beans. You tried to keep a slab of bacon or salt pork hanging in the woodshed. If you were really provident, as a good many townspeople were, you had a case or two of canned tomatoes, canned corn, canned peas, and a fifty-pound sack of dry beans in the pantry. You could last out a couple of weeks of being snowbound, right there in town, if you had to. If you got sick you knew that someone could get to a neighbor and send word to Dr. Williams or Dr. Neff, who would get to your house somehow, no matter how deep the drifts, and give you something to soothe your pain or, in extremity, ease your dying. It wasn’t at all like being twenty miles from civilization and a mile from the nearest neighbor. Winter might be long and hard, but you didn’t have to face it alone. Others were there around you, within hailing distance. You were a part of a community. You might wish it was summer instead of winter; but it wasn’t, so you put up with it. Eventually it would be spring again, and summer. It always had been, anyway.
Classes started in the new school building, away up at the north end of Main Street, after the Christmas holiday. Everything was brand new and smelled of paint and varnish and hot new radiators. There were classrooms and offices and a domestic science kitchen and laboratories for the science courses. There was a big auditorium with a stage, and under it was the gymnasium, the basketball court. The school board and the staff held open house the first week and practically everybody was proud and impressed. A few old-timers shook their heads and said it cost far too much, with that theater room and that basketball room, and it would cost twice as much to heat as both the old school buildings put together. But even they finally agreed that there it was, and there was nothing to do but use it and get used to it. And, they added, pay off the bonds.
Winter isn’t the best time to open a new school, perhaps, but it does reveal the flaws and weaknesses. Plumbing froze and radiators balked, doors swelled and jammed and ventilators didn’t work. And after the first big January snowstorm nobody could get to school until the road men got out the big road grader and plowed a track all the way out Main Street, clear to the north end, which never had been done before. When classes were held in the old buildings, which were in the heart of town, walks were shoveled by the householders and paths were quickly trodden past vacant lots, without any outside help. But the problems were handled, one after another, and everybody made the needed adjustments. Even before classes opened in the new building, three people bought building lots on North Main Street near the school and picked out plans at the lumber yards for houses they said they would start building as soon as frost was out of the ground next spring.
Early in January Father wrote, in an editorial note, “Flagler is on the move. We detect signs of a building boom, and the direction of growth is northward. In fact, we venture to predict that within a very few years our handsome new school building, which some people said was away out in the country last summer, will be in the very heart of town. We also venture to predict that there will be a municipal water tower on the hill just north of the new school in a very few years. But before we plan municipal water we must have electric lights and power. They, too, will come. Plans for the new homes on North Main Street are another sign of the progress that will make Flagler the Best Little City in Eastern Colorado, a community of tree-shaded streets and municipal power and water.”
Father had talked about a municipal power plant before, but that was the first time he advocated a municipal water system. The trees were an old topic. He had something to say about trees almost every week. Father loved trees, often talked about the Nebraska woodland he knew as a boy, and he insisted that trees would grow on the High Plains if they were planted right and given enough water to get them started. He always planned to plant trees, a whole grove of them, on the homestead, but he never did. The few that he did plant were gnawed to the ground by the jack rabbits. Now he insisted that Flagler must plant trees, hundreds of them. “A community of tree-shaded streets” was one of his favorite phrases.
He undoubtedly got his passion for tree-planting from the father of Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton. Mr. Morton, a native New Yorker, went to Nebraska in territorial days and became a crusading editor in Nebraska City, a town on the Missouri river about forty miles below Omaha. He was also an experimental farmer and forester. And he was a politician. He ran four times for governor of Nebraska, and four times was defeated. But President Cleveland named him Secretary of Agriculture in 1893; he was the first Westerner in that cabinet post. The year after he returned from Washington and resumed his editing and farming and tree-planting, Father went to work for him as foreman of the composing room of the Morton daily newspaper in Nebraska City.
How well Father knew Mr. Morton, I do not know, but he worked on the Morton newspaper about a year, he visited the Morton farm, he saw how Morton planted trees. And he heard Morton’s vigorous ideas about the value of trees and his whole theory of farming. I have often thought that Father went to Colorado and took the homestead in part because he wanted to be an experimental farmer, like J. Sterling Morton. If so, he failed utterly. But he never stopped urging people to plant trees. It became a minor crusade in Flagler.
Until Father’s crusade got results, the only trees in town had been the cottonwoods in front of W. H. Lavington’s house and in the lot across the street, which was a kind of town park even though it belonged to Mr. Lavington. Those cottonwoods were eighteen inches through and sixty feet tall. According to one story, when Mrs. Lavington came to Flagler as a bride from the East she was appalled by the bleakness of the town, the complete lack of trees. So Mr. Lavington got cottonwood saplings, perhaps from along Bijou Creek fifty miles to the west, and planted them for her, and she watered and tended them the first few years. Her care got them started and they throve, tolerant of heat and able to survive months of drouth. But all trees take a beating in that climate, and cottonwoods are not very tough or durable. Windstorms and blizzards pruned them mercilessly, eventually leaving one-armed, topless, misshapen cripples of almost all those big cottonwoods. A few years after we went to Flagler the trees directly in front of the Lavington house became a hazard to the house itself and had to be cut down. There were tears in Mrs. Lavington’s eyes as she watched the cutting. Father’s campaign by then had begun to have worthwhile results; there were young Norway maples and green ash and honey locusts along most of the town’s residential streets, some of them twelve or fifteen feet tall and beginning to cast a bit of shade. But I know how Mrs. Lavington felt about those cottonwoods, scraggly and beaten though they were. They were shade and leaf talk in a sun-seared land, and they were bird-song and insect chirp and hum. Blackbirds stopped there every spring and chattered about far places, both red-wings and yellow-heads. Robins nested there. Red-shafted western flickers searched for
Father got trees, but getting municipal power or municipal water or municipal anything was considerably more complicated. After he wrote that editorial about the “building boom” he thought he saw coming, he wondered why he got no response to his call for municipal power and water. After a few days he asked Clarence Smith about it. “I didn’t expect everybody in town to support it, but I didn’t expect everyone to ignore it, either. Why, I haven’t even heard anyone speak out against it!”
“At this stage, Will,” Mr. Smith said, “you are talking about a pipe dream. Flagler can’t even buy a coal-oil lamp or a hand pump, officially. Flagler isn’t a legal entity. It’s the name of a railroad stop, and a post office, but that’s all.”
“How about the school?”
“Yes, the school district is a legal entity with the power to issue bonds, but it’s the only legally constituted authority in town. The post office is a convenience provided by the federal government. The county takes care of our streets, such care as they get. But as a community, we are just a settlement that grew up in the vicinity of a railroad station. Yes, I know this seems strange since Flagler has been a settlement for twenty-five years. But it happens to be a fact in law. You and I can talk till doomsday about municipal lights and water, but until we incorporate and become a legal municipality we will never have them.”
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes