Country Editor's Boy, p.30Hal Borland
And I knew that enlistment, or Chautauqua, or whatever I did within reason was no longer the important thing. As Father had said that morning, I was growing up, and whether I was grown up or not—and my opinion didn’t really count—I was at the point where his and Mother’s primary attention could get back to themselves and to the newspaper that really was the center of their lives. I had a life of my own to live, a career to make, or whatever I was going to do with that life. They loved me and had cherished and protected and sheltered me, but they couldn’t live that life for me. Whether they had talked it over or not—and they almost certainly had, one way or another—that’s what Father was telling me, without saying it in so many words: that I was practically on my own.
It was impossible to say then, and I can’t say now, just how it was done; but in the next few days I was made aware that while we were still a family, with the tight bonds that grow up around an only child, the bonds were being loosened for me. Instead of telling me which clothes to take and packing them for me, Mother asked which ones I wanted to take and suggested that I do the packing. Instead of saying I should see certain relatives in Nebraska, Father gave me the Lincoln address of his sister, Etta Buerstetta, and said he thought her son Ira, about my age, was at home now. He asked me if I had my Pullman reservations, and Mother didn’t say, “You’d better get them for him, Will.” Little things, even inconsequential matters, were handed to me for decision. And a new closeness seemed to have grown between Father and Mother, as though they were strengthening a bridge that would span the gap my going would leave.
Then everything was happening at once.
We went on our Truant Day, all eleven seniors and two postgraduates. We simply got up in assembly that morning and walked out, practically kidnapping Miss Ward on the way. We drove to the Breaks north of Limon, a freakish geological formation of rugged hills and steep gullies covered with pines and scrub oak. Legend said the Breaks had been a hideout for stage robbers and cattle rustlers in the old days, but I never found a shred of truth in it. We climbed the hills, slid down the gullies, and picnicked under the trees. Marjorie Miner and I sat under a pine tree and talked for an hour about You and Me and Life, all capitalized. We decided that Life was earnest but might be fun, and that we were going to shape it to our demands. Individually, not together. We didn’t quite say it, but we agreed that it was good to be friends, just friends.
We took final exams, pretty much a formality. We got our final marks. I was at the head of the class, would be valedictorian. Professor Ward announced the names of scholarship winners in assembly. I got the one I wanted, to the University of Colorado.
We went to the baccalaureate service at the church. The Reverend Adna Moore was neither mealy-mouthed nor overly pious. He wasn’t even very sententious. Even his own daughter said it was a good talk.
Graduation gifts came and were opened. Mostly from relatives and family friends, mostly silk socks and neckties, with two or three gift editions of memorable quotations and well-beloved poems. The day before graduation Father brought a small package home when he came to dinner, a package from Denver and addressed in blue ink and the familiar handwriting. I opened it and found a leather-bound selection of Emerson’s essays. Inside was a card on which she had written, “I’m as proud as if I really were your sister. Love, M.”
A good many years later, looking up something Emerson wrote, I came across that small leather-bound book in my library and leafed through it, wondering where it came from. Then I found the card with its faded ink, and read it, and had to think twice before I remembered that “M” stood for Mabel.
At last there was the commencement program, too long, as high school commencements usually are. Too much talk. Too many speeches. I gave my valedictory, which lasted almost fifteen minutes, a good ten minutes longer than was necessary to say what I had to say. Dorothy Muckler, from the junior class, read a typical class prophecy. The scholarships were announced all over again. And finally there was the commencement address, by someone whose name I didn’t hear and made no attempt to remember, too long, too orotund, too sententious, and too dull. And at last Professor Ward handed out the diplomas, which was the real purpose of the whole program. He called us up in alphabetical order and handed each of us a rolled parchment tied with a twined strand of purple and gold ribbon.
Farquhar, Nina, gay, thin, tubercular.
Farr, Duncan, tall, lean, looking as his horseman father must have looked at eighteen.
Hartzler, Nancy, a farm girl, tall, self-conscious, one of the best brains in the class.
Jewell, Ruth, another farm girl, happy and dedicated.
Lewin, Fern, quiet, usually in the background.
Moore, Lora, gay, bright, auburn-haired daughter of the preacher.
Page, Iona, round-faced, pretty, vivacious.
Quinn, Hugh, youngest of the big Quinn family.
Robb, Pearl, stocky, serious son of a farmer.
Williams, Justin, wiry, almost puckish, but serious now, his commitment made to the medical profession.
Five young men in blue serge suits. Six girls in long white dresses. Flagler High School’s third graduating class.
Then it was over. We said goodbyes to each other and to our teachers. Through with high school. Graduated. In a commencement, which the Reverend Mr. Moore had reminded us meant a beginning, not an end.
We walked home, Father and Mother and I, with little talk. Mother said my speech was very good. She was glad I had memorized it so I didn’t have to keep looking at notes. Father said it was well organized. He wished the main speaker had organized his talk as well. And kept it as short.
Then we were at home, and Mother went to their bedroom and came back with a small gift-wrapped box. She handed it to me.
“What is it?”
“Open it and see.”
“Who is it from?”
“Your father and me. Now go ahead and open it, see if you like it.”
I opened it. Inside was a pocket watch, a thin gold Elgin, the first good watch I had ever owned. “Look on the back,” Mother urged. I looked. There were my entwined initials and the year, 1918. I was awed, didn’t know what to say. I said, “Thanks, I—I—well, I don’t know how to thank you enough.”
“We had to order it,” Mother said. “From Denver. Almost two months ago.”
I was staring at the watch, still there in my hand, but I made a quick calculation. Two months ago; that would have been the week before the big explosion over Mabel. I hugged Mother and kissed her, and for a moment she held me very tight. Then she let me go, stepped back, and she said, “You’ve got just two more days. Then you take the train for Lincoln. What do you want to do? Anything special?”
“Nothing very special,” I said. “Tomorrow I’d just like to poke around. Maybe go out to the river, on my bike, and maybe out to the Indian caves.”
“I’ll make a couple of sandwiches for you. And you can sleep late in the morning. Till—” She smothered a yawn. “My goodness, I guess I could use some sleep too. Till eight o’clock.”
I tried again to thank them for the watch, but Father said, “You’d better go on to bed and be ready to get up in the morning.”
The next day I went out to Kit Carson Hill and sat on the grass for a little while, thinking about the darkness and the stars, and her saying, “I won’t remember their names, but tell me again.” It seemed a long time ago, a long, long time. The first blossoms were just opening on the Malvastrum coccineum, cowboy’s delight.
On the way back to town I stopped at the trail and went down to Crystal Springs to sit on the ledge and look out over the pond, remembering the first visit, when I saw the ducks and the killdeers and the falcon, and the big water snake. Only the killdeers were there this time. Maybe the snake was, but I didn’t go to look. I went back to the road and to town.
At the edge of town I turned south, out the road to Verhoff’s Dam. It was almost noon,
I finished my lunch and went back to the road and on down through the valley and up the steep slope beyond, and left my bike and climbed to the old Indian caves. We had always been going to dig one of them out, really dig it right down to rock, and see if we couldn’t find a real Indian skeleton. I sat on the ledge above the caves and looked out across the flats, a view almost as broad as that from Kit Carson Hill. It was a big world. I sat there maybe half an hour, just feeling the plains in my blood and bones and sinew and marrow.
Then I went back to town. I rode all the way up Main Street to the school, left my bike there, and went down to the pond. It had begun to recede and had left a band of muddy grass and soggy sod maybe ten feet wide. The ducks had all gone several weeks ago, on north to nesting grounds where the water didn’t shrink to nothing in July. I walked halfway around the pond, and I found a small white quartz arrowhead, a bird point, very small, perfect.
Then I went back to my bike and rode north a mile or so and came to a place with a scattering of big ant hills. I went over and squatted on my heels and watched the big red ants and remembered the scientific name the entomologist gave me for them: Pognomyrmex occidentalis. Strange, how acute the young memory can be. I even remembered that man’s face and the tones of his voice.
Then I went back to town.
The next morning I put away the things I wouldn’t need any more, the mementos from high school and the clippings about football games and track meets and debates I was in. And the letters. I tied them in a packet and put them with my report cards and other school papers. I told Mother I was putting all those things in a box with a lid on it and leaving it in the closet in my room, and if it was in the way she could move it or do whatever she wanted to do with it. “There isn’t anything in it,” I said, “that matters very much, I guess.”
Then it was the last day, and I went over to the News office with Father in the morning. But he wouldn’t let me do any work. He didn’t do much work himself. He talked about what he planned to do with the office, how he was going to rearrange things after he bought out the Progress, what equipment he would sell and what he would keep. He asked my advice about where to put the stapler and the extra rack of type. And where to put the linotype so there would be good natural light. But I knew he was merely talking. He had everything all planned out in his own mind.
Clarence Smith stopped in, in midmorning, and took time to tell me about his first job away from home and ask about my summer itinerary. Before he left he said, “You know, I’m going to miss you. I never knew when you were going to walk into my office and say, ‘I’ve got to apologize again.’” And he left laughing.
Father closed the office and locked up for the day when we went home for dinner. Mother had fried chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and canned peas and cherry pie, a special dinner with every item a favorite of mine.
Fritz knew something was up. He kept coming to me, wanting to be patted, and every time I moved he looked around to see where I had gone. When we started down to the depot he insisted on going along. So there we were on the depot platform, Father, Mother, me and Fritz. And Ora Groves came down with the outgoing mail and asked me, with a sly smile, “Going somewhere, or just meeting a friend?” And wished me well.
Then the train whistled from two miles away, and I took one last look at the flats off to the south. Father asked, “Sure you’ve got your tickets, son?” Fritz whined. Mother said, “Don’t forget to write. You can at least send us a post card once a week.” Her mouth set in that firm, thin line that meant she either was mad as a wet hen or fighting back the tears.
The train screeched to a stop. Father asked the conductor, “Pullman?” and he said, “Third car back.” I said, “Goodbye!” and grabbed my suitcase. Mother hugged me and kissed me and turned away.
Father put an arm around me and said, “Goodbye, son,” his voice husky.
I ran down the platform toward the waiting Pullman conductor. Just before I got aboard I looked back and waved. They were standing where I had left them, Mother with a white handkerchief in her hand, Father with his arm around her. He waved. Fritz barked. I went on up the steps. There was a faint call from up ahead, “All aboooard!” and the train began to move.
I stood in the vestibule for a last look, first to the north, at Flagler slipping past, then to the south, out across the old flats that had been the frontier and now were just the High Plains, where a new breed of men were plowing the grass and fencing the wind, or trying to, and making the memories of yesterday the legends of tomorrow.
Then the porter took my suitcase and led the way to my seat. The locomotive, far up there ahead, whistled a long, screaming blast for the crossing a mile east of town. Then we flashed past the tattered old cottonwood that was the only reminder of a store and post office called Bowserville. On toward Seibert, Stratton, Burlington, Goodland. East. Toward tomorrow, whatever and wherever it might be.
About the Author
Hal Borland (1900–1978) was a nature writer and novelist who produced numerous bestselling books including memoirs and young adult classics, as well as decades of nature writing for the New York Times. Borland considered himself a “natural philosopher,” and he was interested in exploring the way human life was bound to the greater world of plants, animals, and natural processes.
All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this ebook or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 1970 by Hal Borland
Cover design by Neil Heacox
This edition published in 2014 by Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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Hal Borland, Country Editor's Boy
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes