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Country editors boy, p.16
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.16

           Hal Borland
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“But you keep talking about them.”

  Mr. Smith laughed. “I have to keep up my reputation as a visionary, maybe even as a Socialist, though you know I’m no more a Socialist than you are. Actually, Will, what I’m doing is keeping a spark alive, the idea that some day we can have these things. But first we’ve got to become a legal municipality. We must incorporate.”

  “Well,” Father exclaimed, “why don’t we? What are we waiting for?”

  “That,” Mr. Smith said, “is what some of us said three years ago. We tried then, but there were too many people who didn’t want change. They said they’d always got along with a pump and an oil lamp and they saw no need to make changes just to please newcomers with fancy ideas. The simplest way to block change of the kind we wanted was to refuse to incorporate. As long as we aren’t incorporated we can’t issue bonds, and without bonds you can’t buy such things as a light plant or a water works.”

  “It just doesn’t make sense,” Father said.

  “Lots of things in politics don’t make sense.”

  “What have politics got to do with it?”

  “It’s the same old story—change or stand pat. The basic difference between the two major parties, as I see it. Teddy Roosevelt tried to liberalize the Republicans four years ago, and we all know what he got for his pains.”

  “You know where I stand politically, don’t you?”

  “Well, I think I do.”

  “I’m a Wilson Democrat. Locally, I’m for incorporation, and the sooner the better. I’m ready to start campaigning for it right now.”

  Mr. Smith considered for a long minute. “If I were you,” he finally said, “I would wait till next spring. Till April, at least.”


  “Well, we’re right in the middle of winter now, and there’s some pretty dreary days yet to come. A cold, raw winter day when your feet never get warm, you head is stuffed up, and the coal bin is almost empty somehow doesn’t inspire much optimism. We still remember that bumper crop of wheat that got hailed out. Quite a lot of folks, even those who voted for it, look at that new school we just opened and think how long it’s going to take to pay off the bonds. Some days I feel that way myself. But by next April, after we’ve had a couple of good spring rains and the air has warmed up, the world will look a lot different. It’ll be a new crop year, another chance to make that million dollars. And by then folks will be used to that new school building and won’t think about the bonds every time they see it.”

  So Father waited. Meanwhile, he went to Burlington, the county seat, several times and talked to lawyers and political leaders, partly about how to incorporate a town like Flagler, partly about the political situation in the county and the state. He laid the groundwork for the political stand he was ready to take. And, of course, for the political patronage he hoped to get if the Democrats won in the fall elections.

  The winter passed, the snow began to melt, and April came to the High Plains. April, on those plains, can be a season all by itself. Mild air begins to flow up from the south, all the way from the Gulf of Mexico and across the whole of Texas. The melt begins. Spring rains come. Melt and rain combine to create shallow ponds in every upland swale and hollow. You go out and feel that air and see that water and you know it was worth enduring the winter just to emerge into this. Ducks come winging in, ducks that really shouldn’t be there at all, so far from real lakes and running water. But there they are, huge rafts of them on those shallow ponds, resting, feeding, quacking loudly for a few days, maybe as long as a week, before they move on north, only to be followed by more mallards, more canvasbacks, more teal. That’s the way it used to be, the way it was that spring. And here and there were geese, mostly the big Canadas but occasionally snow geese with their coal-black wing tips. Honking as they came over, with a gabble that made you think of a pack of small, feisty dogs chasing a rabbit out at the edge of town. The geese, too, stayed a few days at the big shallow ponds, then went on. And in those days there were other strangers such as snipe and curlew and upland plover, to make our remote inland pools as exotic as the bayous of Texas. And then our own birds came back, the meadow larks and the doves and the prairie falcons, and the bullbats, the night hawks that yeeped and soared and made roaring dives in the quiet evening sky. The half-dozen robins that nested in the Lavington cottonwoods returned and sang all day long. And our horned larks, most of which had never gone very far away, sang again, spiraling like the storied skylarks that sang so beautifully in English poetry. Our larks sang beautifully, too, and in reality, not in poems that used verbs like wert and wingest. Sand lilies bloomed, little white stars in the tentative new grass. Here and there, in specially favored places, were violets, more yellows than purples. Wild onions shot up, greener than the new grass, green-hungry cows ate them, and for several weeks the milk was so rank of onions you couldn’t drink it and even the cream stations in town had an aroma of mild garlic. On the cactus flats, prickly pear and grizzly-bear freshened, their broad pads fattened as they stored moisture for the dry weeks of midsummer, and the first small nubbins of flower buds appeared. Buffalo grass turned the brown winter hills a tawny greenish tan as its first new shoots appeared.

  By mid-April it began to feel like spring, to look like spring. You could feel it in the air, feel it underfoot right through the soles of your shoes. You could hear it in people’s voices, see it in their eyes.

  Then Father began his campaign for incorporation.

  All he said the first week was, “Isn’t it time Flagler became an incorporated community? It seems so to us. We believe we should have the rights and assume the responsibilities of a legally constituted town. This is going to be a year of decision in county, state and union, and we should be prepared to make our decisions as a community too. The only way to do that is to incorporate as a town.” It was a call to action, but not really a summons.

  Nothing in particular happened. Clarence Smith said, “It’s a start. Now maybe we’ll see who stands where.” But he didn’t bring up the matter at the weekly meeting of the Commercial Club. Nobody brought it up.

  The next week Father asked, on the front page, “When are we going to get started on incorporation? How long is Flagler going to be a settlement without the right to govern itself? This spring is not too soon to start. It is time for action.” And he listed the legal steps necessary, which were quite simple.

  The next morning Father met W. H. Lavington in the lobby at the post office. Mr. Lavington, a square-faced man with a clipped gray mustache and a square jaw, said, “Good morning, Will. I see you want to get this town incorporated.” He said it with a half smile.

  “That’s right, W. H.,” Father said. “I think it’s time we did something about it.”

  “I’m inclined to agree,” Mr. Lavington said. “I understand you have been looking into the matter. Why don’t you drop over to the bank and let’s talk about it.”

  There were half a dozen men in the post office at the time, and they all heard what was said. The word spread: W. H. Lavington is in favor of incorporation! Later in the morning Father went over to the bank and talked with Mr. Lavington. It was mostly a gesture, as far as incorporation went, and Father knew it. Mr. Lavington knew as much about the procedure as Father did. They talked maybe ten minutes about incorporation, then about business in general, then about how the News was doing. The bank, after all, held the mortgage on the paper.

  Father was there less than half an hour. Then Mr. Lavington said, “Thanks for coming over. I think you’re right about incorporating. It’s time we began to run our own affairs. I’m not sure we’re ready yet for a municipal light plant,” he said with a smile, “but we should be in a position to have one if we want it. I guess the next step is to call a meeting and name a committee.” They shook hands, and Mr. Lavington said, “Too bad you’re not a Republican.”

  The Flagler Progress, which had carefully avoided the topic until then, came out in favor of incorporation the following week. And when the subj
ect was brought up for discussion at the next meeting of the Commercial Club, opinion there favored incorporation by a margin of almost four to one.

  Clarence Smith stopped in at the office in late afternoon a few days later. “Well,” he said to Father, “I guess you are the winner on this one.”

  “Nothing’s won,” Father said, “until the vote is in.”

  “It will get the vote,” Mr. Smith said. “There’ll be votes against it, of course, die-hards who always hold out to the bitter end. But I’ll venture that the margin is just about what it was for the new school. We knew we had that won just as soon as W. H. came out in favor of it.”

  Father nodded. “I knew it was pretty well settled when I talked to him. Then when the Progress came out for it there wasn’t any question. The Progress, of course, will be the official paper.”

  “You mean that’s the price you had to pay?”

  “Oh, no!” Father laughed, made a wry face. “Nothing was said about the Progress. Nothing had to be said. I was just reminded that I’m not a Republican. I had hoped to keep politics out of it, but—” Father shrugged.

  “Will it hurt, not being the official town paper?”

  “Some. But I’ll manage. The pay for printing town ordinances and other official notices would help, but I’ll get along without it. And if the Democrats win this fall in the state and the county, I’ll get my share of the county printing. In the long run it’ll probably amount to more than the town’s legal printing would.” Father rolled a cigarette. “Besides,” he said, “this means that I’ll be completely independent. I won’t have to try to keep in with anybody. I can speak my mind.”

  A meeting was called the following week to consider the matter of incorporation. Everybody in town turned out, it seemed. Several cranky old-timers complained bitterly that some people just couldn’t leave well enough alone, that they had to find new ways to run other people’s business. There wasn’t much said in favor of incorporating the town until W. H. Lavington got up and said, “I think we should get started. It will take quite a while to get things done, with all the legal papers and so on, maybe till next fall. I think we’d better name a committee tonight to get started.” And after that nobody had to say anything in favor of the proposal. A vote was taken and it carried by an even greater margin than the new school proposal got the year before. Then a “Town Committee” was named to take charge of the whole matter. There were five members, three old-timers, Mr. Lavington, Mr. Blancken from the hotel, and Ed Epperson, and two of the new people, Dave Buck, who came from Arkansas for his health, and Posey Briggs, whose real name was Elaine and who was the sister of Spider Miner’s mother.

  So Father rounded out his first year in Flagler with a victory that wasn’t going to add one nickel to his income. But he celebrated the anniversary by going to the bank and paying not only the interest on the mortgage but a hundred dollars on the principal. And in the next issue of the News he announced his political stand. He said, “It is time that Democratic principles were put into action all over this country. It is time for a change in Colorado and Kit Carson County, and it is imperative that Woodrow Wilson be kept at the helm of our nation. The Flagler News will work for and support all those objectives with all the strength at our command.”

  He showed the statement of policy to Mother before he printed it, just as he had typed it out on the old Oliver, words X-ed out and interlined with pencil. Mother read it, reread it. Finally she asked, “Are you sure that’s the right way to spell ‘imperative’?”


  She read it a third time and Father waited impatiently, jingling the small change in his pants pocket.

  “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

  “As sure as I’m alive.”

  “What if the Republicans win?”

  “Then the Democrats will lose. Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sarah, I didn’t ask you to correct the spelling or ask me if I meant it! All I want to know is whether I made it clear.”

  “It seems plenty clear to me. All I was asking was what you will do if the Democrats lose.”

  “If we lose, I won’t get any county printing. I don’t get any now, so I won’t be any worse off.”

  “That’s what I wondered. If you’re not going to get any town printing either—”

  “Sarah, I have to take that stand, regardless of the county printing or the town printing. I’m a Democrat. I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and I’m not going to shilly-shally about it in hopes of making a dollar or two by keeping my mouth shut. I’m for the Democratic ticket right down the line, and I want everybody to know it.” He took the copy from her, read it to himself again, then said, “That’s exactly what I wanted to say.”

  “Then I guess you’d better say it,” Mother said.


  THAT WAS THE SUMMER of the beans. It was a wheat summer too, but I didn’t have much to do with the wheat. It really began the last week in April, when Mr. Hall brought down the copy for his advertisement late one afternoon and stayed to talk a little while. It was after school and I was at the case setting type, so I could hear everything that was said. Father and Mr. Hall talked about business, and finally Mr. Hall said he needed extra help for the summer.

  “What I really need,” he said, “is a boy to take up the slack on Saturdays. Help with the chores, stock the shelves, put up orders, run errands. If you hear of a reliable boy who’d like to make some pocket money, let me know.”

  After he had left I said to Father, “You don’t really need me on Saturdays, do you?”

  “So,” Father said, “you want to work for Bill Hall.”

  “Well, I thought—” I wasn’t sure what I thought, but working in a store seemed, from there at least, more fun than being a printer.

  “You didn’t work here very much on Saturdays last summer,” Father said. “You were out playing baseball or prowling the flats with Justin Williams most Saturdays.” Then he said, “No, son, I don’t really need you on Saturdays. I had figured you would be playing baseball or something else most of the time. So if you would rather work for Bill Hall than do that, go ahead.

  “What do you think he would pay me?”

  “I haven’t any idea. I figured on paying you a dollar and a half a day, but only for five days a week. That’s all I can afford this summer. Why don’t you ask him and see what he says, see if it’s enough to make it worth while?”

  I went to the store the next afternoon and found Mr. Hall. I told him I might be interested in that Saturday job he was talking about. He looked at me with a smile and said, “I thought I saw your ears prick up when your dad and I were talking. That’s fine. How about starting day after tomorrow?”

  “Well, I guess I could.”

  “Good! You know John. He opens the store at seven o’clock. You can help him sweep out and stock shelves. He’ll tell you what to do. The morning won’t be too busy, but we’ll all be kept hopping in the afternoon. It usually isn’t very busy after supper, though, and we close at nine o’clock.”

  I hadn’t thought about the store being open after supper on Saturday nights. But I wasn’t going to back out now, even before I started. “All right,” I said. “I’ll be here Saturday morning.” Then I mustered my courage and asked, “How about pay?”

  “Oh,” he put a hand on my shoulder, “don’t worry about that. You’ll get paid every Saturday night, like everyone else.”

  And that was that. I just couldn’t say, Yes, I know I’ll get paid, but I want to know how much. Either you are a natural-born bargainer or you aren’t. I wasn’t.

  I went back to the News office and told Father Mr. Hall wanted me to start right away, that week. “Just on Saturdays,” I said. “I’ll work here the rest of the time this summer. And every afternoon after school till school’s out.”

  “Fine,” Father said. “As I said a year ago, I don’t care what you do as long as you learn the printer’s trade. You got a good start last summer, and by the end of this summer
you should be a pretty good journeyman printer…. Well, what did he say he would pay you?”

  “He didn’t say.”

  “Didn’t you ask?”

  “Well, sort of. I guess he didn’t understand. He just said I would get paid every Saturday night, like the rest of them.”

  “Maybe you should have had your mother talk to him. She’d have found out. Well, you will too, Saturday night. And if he’s not paying you enough you can always quit.”

  The big front doors were still locked when I went to the store at seven Saturday morning, but when I went around to the side door I found it open. John Robinson was already there, sprinkling oily red sweeping compound in the aisles. Without any greeting he said, “Get a broom from the back room.” He was an older man, maybe as much as fifty, rather florid-faced, almost wholly bald, slightly stooped, with quick eyes and a firm, soft voice. He had been a store clerk for years, maybe all his life for all I knew. He knew the stock in that store from A to Z and knew practically all the customers by their first names. Seeing him about the store you almost felt that Mr. Hall worked for him, not the other way round. He was the senior employee and he had special privileges. An early riser, he always opened the store. He went home about ten and didn’t come back till after the noon meal. And he never worked after supper. Someone once asked him why he didn’t start a store of his own. With all his friends for customers he would be sure to make a go of it. John shook his head. “I like to work but I hate to worry. I don’t mind making decisions if someone else takes the responsibility. If I owned a store I’d have bills and credit and notes and interest to worry about. Not me! I’ll sell anything over the counter, but Bill Hall can run the business and welcome to it.”

  I got the broom and John told me to take one aisle while he took the other. I knew how to sweep, and sweep clean. Mother had finally drilled that into me. Then we went behind the counters with our brooms, and we swept out the shoe alcove and the alcove with women’s notions. Finally we had all our sweepings at the door to the back room, and John said, “You take that end and I’ll take this,” and we swept the back room, gathered the sweeping compound, now black with accumulated dirt, in a scoop shovel and dumped it in the trash barrel to be burned. That was my next job, to burn the waste paper and trash. I felt as though I was starting to be a printer’s devil all over again, but maybe on a cleaner scale this time.

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