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Country editors boy, p.23
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       Country Editor's Boy, p.23

           Hal Borland
 
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  We worked the rest of the morning, carrying boards, fetching tools, acting as carpenter’s helpers. By noon the crew had built parallel troughs halfway down the slope, twin tracks spaced to take the two bicycle wheels that served as the flying torpedo’s landing gear. They looked like miniature flumes to carry irrigation water, six inches wide, four inches deep, and held in place by two-by-four cross members beneath, like railroad ties but spaced about ten feet apart.

  We had brought no lunch, but the workmen shared their sandwiches with us, and when we had eaten we went back to work. By late afternoon the track was finished. It extended close to four hundred yards down the slope, and the final two sections were up on legs so it looked like a gigantic schoolyard slide for little kids. “That,” Jake said, “is to give the torpedo a lift into the air at take-off.”

  Doc Buck had inspected the track, measuring its width with a carpenter’s rule and getting down on his knees to sight down it and gauge its pitch. Finally he said, “That’s a good job,” and he and Jake went back to the flying machine beside the barn. They tinkered with it, made adjustments, cranked the motor, got it running. But it ran rough, so Jake changed a couple of spark plugs. At last Doc Buck said, “That’ll do till tomorrow,” and said we’d done enough for one day.

  Jake assembled the workmen, who climbed into the truck. He and Doc Buck got into the seat, but before they left Jake said to us, “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” Then he started the motor and they drove off. Little Doc and I, dog-tired, got on our bikes and followed, lagging far enough behind to let the truck’s dust settle. It was a long ride, twice as far as it had been coming out that morning.

  At the supper table that evening I wondered why Mother kept looking at Father and me with a strange, tight smile. Doc Buck and his aerial torpedo hadn’t been mentioned, but obviously something was up. Finally she said to me, “I suppose you want to skip Sunday school tomorrow.”

  “What?” I pretended not to understand.

  “Oh, I know what you’ve been up to.”

  I glanced at Father, automatically.

  “No,” she said, “your father didn’t tell me. He didn’t have to. I’ve got eyes and ears. You needn’t think you put anything over on anyone, either of you.”

  Father cleared his throat but didn’t say a word.

  “All right,” Mother said. “As long as you’ve come this far, you might as well go the rest of the way. I won’t try to stop either of you. You can both go out and watch that fool thing tomorrow.”

  We ate in silence, both Father and I. I was embarrassed and felt guilty, and I suppose he did too. By now Mother was smiling a maddening little secret smile. At last she couldn’t keep it to herself any longer. She got up to clear away the dishes and she said, “As a matter of fact, there isn’t going to be morning church or Sunday school tomorrow.”

  “What’s that?” Father asked.

  “I met Reverend Moore on the street this afternoon and he said there wouldn’t be any services tomorrow. He said so many folks want to go out and watch Doc Buck make a fool of himself that he had decided to cancel services.” She looked at Father and laughed. “I told him he needn’t bother to tell you, that I would.” And a moment later, “You didn’t think I wouldn’t find out, did you?”

  Father sighed. It seemed to be a sigh of relief. “No. We just didn’t want to worry you.” He shook his head. “Apparently more people know what’s going on in secret than if I’d printed handbills. I begin to wonder if he’s going to charge admission.”

  By nine o’clock the next morning the Arriba road was a solid cloud of dust. Everybody in town—all the men and boys at least, and quite a few women—was on the way out to the old Elgin place. Horses and buggies, wagons, automobiles, trucks and bicycles were on that road, and at least a dozen boys were on foot. Dr. Williams offered to take Father along in his car. Little Doc and I rode our bikes.

  By ten o’clock there were at least two hundred people at the flying machine track, lined up on both sides. At least fifty others were gathered at the barn, watching Doc Buck and Jake make their final preparations. Someone said they had been there, tinkering with the aerial torpedo, since six o’clock. I wormed my way into that crowd and watched Doc Buck tauten the brace wires, set the wing flaps, check the water in the radiator, measure the gasoline. Jake put the propeller on the shaft, tightened the bolts, and gave it a tentative turn.

  “All right!” Doc Buck finally shouted. “Make room!”

  The crowd fell back. Doc Buck at one wing tip, Jake at the other, wheeled the aerial torpedo down the slope to the head of the track. They set the wheels in the track, Jake put blocks in front of them, ordered everyone back again, and spun the propeller. He had to spin it a dozen times before the motor started. Doc Buck set the controls, let the motor idle, timing it with his big gold watch. At last he shouted, “Back! Everybody back from the track! In exactly thirty seconds the aerial torpedo will take off!” He adjusted the controls again, the motor roared, the whole machine shook and began to creak and strain. Doc Buck looked at his watch, shouted, “All right, Jake!” and Jake kicked the chocks out of the way, the machine began to move. With Jake at one wing tip, Doc Buck at the other, it rolled down the track, faster and faster. It outran Jake and Doc Buck and they stood watching, their faces alight.

  The crowd, which had been almost wholly silent, began to shout, a great shout of amazement and excitement. But the shout died to a groan before it really gathered volume. The aerial torpedo’s motor sputtered, coughed and died. The propeller idled to a stop. But the machine, its tail now bouncing along the ground, rolled on down the track, leaped a little way into the air of its own momentum, and sank to the ground with a splintering crash not ten feet beyond the end of the track.

  Doc Buck was running toward the wreckage. Jake was shouting curses and running after him. The crowd surged after them, but Doc Buck turned and shouted, “Back! Stay back. God help us!” Someone in the crowd cried, “It’s going to explode!” and the crowd turned upon itself and stumbled and milled, trying to run back up the slope.

  But the machine didn’t explode. It simply lay there like a stricken bird, one wing crumpled, the propeller splintered, one of its bicycle wheels crushed beyond repair. Doc Buck looked at the wreckage. Jake was examining the motor. Doc Buck looked around, at those of the crowd who hadn’t run away in panic, and said quietly, “Gentlemen, you have just witnessed such an incident as plagued the Wright brothers time and again. But remember, they surmounted every obstacle. I, too, shall proceed with my testing. Fortunately, this aerial torpedo is not the wreck it appears. My good assistant and I will have it back in working order by three o’clock this afternoon. And now, if a few of you strong men care to help, we will take this stricken machine back up the slope and proceed with repairs.”

  There were enough strong men to get the aerial torpedo back on the tracks and support the side with the broken wheel. Slowly they trundled it back up the slope. Jake brought tools and spare parts from the truck and went to work.

  The crowd began to disperse, some muttering, some laughing. Father came to me and said, “I am going back to town. Do you want to stay?” I said yes, I would stay. He nodded. “I’ll tell your mother. Just get home in time for supper.”

  Only a handful of people stayed, most of them boys and younger men. They stood around and talked and waited. Noon came and went. Doc Buck and Jake replaced the broken wheel, anchored the motor more firmly to the supports from which it had been shaken, put on a new propeller. At last, in midafternoon, they put chocks under the wheels, started the motor, let it run for perhaps fifteen minutes. There was a leak in the radiator, but only a dripping leak, apparently not enough to matter. Both Doc Buck and Jake ignored it.

  Finally they wheeled the machine to the head of the track once more. This time there was no need to shout a warning. There was no crowd, not more than twenty spectators in all, including us boys. The sun was a good half way down the western sky.

  Doc Buck’s
shoulders had begun to sag. He squared them and looked around, hopeful, a man who needed an audience. The shoulders sagged again and he turned back to the flying machine, set the controls, and said, “Go ahead, spin it,” to Jake. Jake spun the new propeller, and the engine, now warm from its trial run, started the first time. Doc Buck advanced the throttle till the engine roared and the flying machine seemed to lunge at the chocks under its wheels. “Let’s go!” Doc Buck shouted, and Jake kicked the chocks away. They trotted down the slope, one at each wing tip as before. And, as before, the aerial torpedo gathered momentum, ran away from them. This time the motor roared, the propeller hummed, and the machine rocked down the track at maybe twenty miles an hour.

  We stood and watched, and I held my breath. The aerial torpedo swooped into the last dip, was lifted by that final rise of track, shot into the air, and was flying. It flew just about a hundred yards, losing altitude steadily. Then it came down, with a crash and a rending screech. Both wheels collapsed. The propeller spun on for a moment, flinging chunks of sod before it dug in and splintered. Then the motor died and the whole machine went over on its back, a slow somersault that ended with a whoosh and a rending of canvas.

  There was no groan from the handful of spectators. Hardly a word was said. They just stood and looked for almost a minute, then they turned and walked away, back up the hill to their buggies or their automobiles or their bikes. And they rode off in silence.

  Doc Buck and Jake walked down the slope, Jake with the weary gait of a tired and disillusioned man. Doc Buck’s shoulders didn’t seem to sag as much as they had before the start of that last disastrous run. His head was high.

  They walked down the slope and looked at the wreckage. They stood there several minutes, not saying a word. Then Jake came back up the hill and got the truck and drove it down to the wreckage. He rigged a windlass and skids and hooked a chain around the motor, which had been torn completely free of the flying machine. He and Doc Buck turned the crank on the windlass and slowly pulled the motor up and into the truck. Then they drove back up the slope, gathered Jake’s tools, looked around for anything they might have overlooked, and drove out the dusty road to the highway and turned west, away from Flagler. I followed them on my bike, and I turned east at the highway, toward town.

  Mother was setting the table for supper when I got there. Father was in the front room reading the Sunday newspaper. He looked up but said nothing.

  Mother said, “Better get washed up, son. Supper’s almost ready.” Then she said, “It didn’t fly, did it?”

  “No,” I said. “It didn’t fly.” And I washed up for supper.

  19

  THAT WAS THE SUMMER the Chautauqua came to Flagler. It was the Standard Chautauqua, whose headquarters were in Lincoln, Nebraska. Father knew somebody in the main office, a friend from the year he spent in Omaha as a salesman for Barnhart Brothers & Spindler, a printers’ supply house, the year I was six years old. He had an amazing range of friends in all kinds of businesses and professions all over the Midwest. That spring he had talked about Chautauqua to various of the Flagler business men, and finally he wrote to his friend in Lincoln and asked if Standard was laying out a Chautauqua circuit for that summer that could include Flagler. He soon had an answer saying it could be arranged and enclosing a fat packet of promotion material telling what Standard Chautauqua had to offer and explaining “How You Can Bring Chautauqua to Your Town.” At the next meeting of the Commercial Club, Father brought up the subject, passed the literature around, and said he was going to propose that the club sponsor Chautauqua in Flagler that summer, and would ask for a vote by club members at the next meeting. The time came and his proposal was passed unanimously, thanks to the persuasive literature from Standard. A few weeks later a field man came out from Lincoln, got the signatures he needed on a contract and a guarantee, and the Chautauqua program was assured.

  Traveling Chautauqua programs were an outgrowth of an annual series of religious seminars begun at Chautauqua Lake, New York, in 1874. Chautauqua Lake was a summer resort with a strong religious inclination, and the original purpose of the meetings and lectures there was to improve the teaching in Sunday schools and religious training generally. Before long the assembly plan was broadened to include cultural subjects aside from religion. And from the few days of lectures and discussions it became a summer assembly that lasted several weeks and was supplemented with home reading programs during the fall and winter. Various local “Chautauqua assemblies” were established, modeled more or less on the original Lake Chautauqua program. But few of them could attract the impressive lecturers who made the original seminars famous.

  Meanwhile, a Scottish immigrant named James Redpath, an astonishingly energetic young man who threw off sparks in all directions, went through a career as New York journalist, pamphleter, Civil War agitator and partisan, and public school educator, and finally got around to the lecture business. He founded a booking agency in Boston that became known as the Redpath Lyceum Bureau. He booked such men as Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bayard Taylor, Wendell Phillips. And to those he added humorists—Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Petroleum V. Nasby—and a number of poets who read from their own works. Then he booked musicians, individually and as small groups, and miniature theatrical and opera companies. His bookings were made primarily for the fall and winter months, when people had time and inclination for such cultural diversion. They were the basis of what became the lyceum circuits, which provided small towns with five or six programs a winter, scattered over the cold indoor months. The programs were held in local opera houses, churches or schools.

  Finally someone, I am not sure who, launched the summer Chautauqua program, which provided five or six continuous days of enlightenment and entertainment, programs much like those on the lyceum circuits, and traveled from town to town performing in a big tent instead of a hall. It wasn’t Redpath, though his name was used for one of the major Chautauqua circuits. That fantastic Scotsman, once his lecture bureau was going full tilt, dashed off to Ireland to lead an uprising against English landlords, came back here to edit the North American Review, and died a violent death under a street car in New York City in 1891. But he had assembled the elements of the summer Chautauqua. All that was needed was someone to assemble them, and someone did. Several someones, for there were at least half a dozen Chautauqua circuits by 1917.

  The system probably was much the same with all of them. The Standard people required that a local group, such as Flagler’s Commercial Club, sponsor the Chautauqua program and guarantee a minimum fee. For this the company promised to provide five days of culture and entertainment, two programs a day, as well as the big airy tent, the seats, stage and all necessary equipment. The sponsors were given books of season tickets to sell, and if they sold enough to cover the guarantee they received a part of the income from single admissions sold at the gate.

  Flagler’s dates were in late June, on the outward swing of the company from Lincoln. But Father began the promotion for the Chautauqua the first week in May. Season ticket sales were under way before school was out; literature distributed to school children put the pressure on parents to buy tickets so that their children wouldn’t be deprived of the greatest cultural feast that had ever come to town. The technique, undoubtedly old even then, has come right on down into the color-TV age: Plant your message in the minds of the youngsters and persuade them to sell it to their parents.

  Along with this, of course, were all the other persuaders, in the local newspapers, from the church pulpit, and in every public forum. And since this was the first time around for Flagler, there were no disgruntled customers from last year who could complain about the quality of the programs. So by the first of June the ticket sales had covered more than ninety percent of the guarantee. Success was certain.

  With his new press, Father was publishing what we thought was the best-looking newspaper in the county, perhaps in all of eastern Colorado. His local advertising had a
lmost doubled. Prosperity, once the uncertainties of the election were resolved, brought a new spirit of optimism to the whole area. Actually, most of the prosperity was a result of wartime inflation, but nobody talked about that and probably few really knew what was happening in terms of economics. Neither farmers nor storekeepers went far beyond the fact that two-dollar wheat put money into a good many people’s pockets. With money in their pockets, people were eager to buy. It was as simple as that, and it added up to prosperity.

  I remember hearing Clarence Smith, who was neither uninformed nor naïve, and certainly not a wild-eyed dreamer, say that eastern Colorado land was better than a gold mine. He explained it this way:

  “Two years ago I sold a half section, three hundred and twenty acres, to this man from Kansas for twenty dollars an acre. He had it all plowed and seeded to winter wheat for something less than five dollars an acre. From that land he harvested sixty-five hundred bushels of wheat, say twenty bushels an acre. Now, that land cost him six thousand four hundred dollars. The plowing and seeding cost him a total of sixteen hundred dollars, making a total investment of eight thousand. His sixty-five hundred bushels of two-dollar wheat brought him thirteen thousand dollars. His first crop, then, paid for his land, his labor, his seed, and gave him a net, over-all profit of just about five thousand dollars. And he still owns the land, free and clear, which is worth more today than he paid for it. Show me a gold mine that will do as well.”

  Regardless of the economics or the mathematics, which were pretty well blown away in the dust storms a few years later, there was this sense of prosperity. And The Flagler News benefited. Besides the increase in local advertising, in which the competing Progress shared only to a minor degree, Father had a regular flow of legal notices. The Democrats were in power and the News was an official county paper. Legal notices paid very well indeed.

 
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