Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hot Off the Press

Over the last few days I've been trying to write an essay on the history of my family's 1894 / 1903 farmhouse in Oklahoma. I have a sprawling, disjointed, unedited 5,000 words to add to the 40,000 I've worked on the last six months. I hope to hit 80,000 or 90,000 words by February and have a complete draft to work with. Finally. Here's that newborn sample--tell me what you think if you're so inclined:

            Let’s say my great grandfather, John, is fourteen years old. But he could also be six or seven. He and his father Abraham are a half day northeast of their homestead. The sun rose a while ago. They’d gotten up well before sunrise to load the wagon with wheat, and John is now dozing, lying flat across the harvest they are carrying to El Reno to sell.
            The wagon slows and Abraham turns his head a little and says, “John, John wake up. We’re at the Canadian.” My great grandfather might say “so what” or he might say nothing, trying to stay half conscious as long as possible on the bed of warm, soft wheat seed, imagining what a beach on the ocean must feel like—how a wheat field is so much like an ocean he’d never see. “John!” Abraham would yell a bit louder, and my great grandfather would sit up on his knees, try to get his feet under him only to have one leg slide out and sink into the seed.
They’d picked this day to travel because it had been over a week since it rained, so the likelihood of the Canadian being full and swift was small. John would manage to get on to the bench seat next to his dad, removing a shoe and dumping the seed into the back. “Pay attention now,” Abraham would say, “Help me look out for pits or boulders.” They looked at each other, then both to the side and straight ahead as Abraham nudged the team from the shoreline into the cold stream, shallow but moving well to the southeast. Plenty of people drowned in the Canadian. It didn’t take much to get stuck, to tip over, to get caught in the current after picking the wrong crossing or time of week. It wasn’t deep, but it didn’t matter. Water has a way of lifting you out of this world before you knew what happened.
It took four full days to get to El Reno and return to Corn. In about 1903 or 1895 (dates are as elusive as frogs) my great grandfather and his father must’ve made the trip several times in summer, selling their wheat harvest one wagon load at a time, then returning with freshly-milled wood to build their first house on the homestead.

John was born in May of 1889, perhaps near Inman or Marion, Kansas, while his parents were most likely renting farms in the area, switching from place to place, trying to find the lowest rates and save enough money for a farm of their own. John’s mother, Elizabeth, had three sons from a previous marriage to Peter Kliewer, who died of fever in 1881 a few weeks before their three month old daughter. John’s parents married on 12/12/1883 and in 1894 they left for Oklahoma, to a place near the Washita River—likely an inexpensive indian plot now ready for sale after allotment had run its course. But this is only a guess. It may be that no one wanted a quarter section of land two miles from the river, even though Gyp Creek ran on the southeastern edge of the property. Then again, the creek’s water was likely too muddy, too gypy, to be potable, so no one might want the land. But this is also only a guess. Maybe Abraham had come down during the Cheyenne / Arapaho land run and made a claim, living on the land alone for some time to claim resident status, then returning home to Kansas to make more money and gather his family. Maybe.
In 1894 Elizabeth and John had 7 kids--3 were Kliewer, 4 were Janzen--and they’d already lost a four month old daughter in June of 1888. They lived in a one room dugout for nearly ten years (or one year), in one winter sheltering a calf inside with them. Likely, they sheltered more than a calf during those years—maybe chickens, hogs, sheep. The dugout was one of many pillbox homesteads dotting quarter sections in western Oklahoma, strong out like lily pads across a pond. Most were built half into the ground, with walls and a roof made of unzipped prairie sod blocks. The ceiling would have a canvas tarp strung up to catch dripping rainfall, and the beds would be shaken out each night for dust, mice, and snakes. Maybe John’s family could afford a glass window or two to let in some light. Maybe they used glass jars.
One person built the frame house on the northern edge of the homestead, but no one remembers who or how long it took to build. Surely Elizabeth rejoiced when they tore down the soddy and smoothed out the land to farm--they’d started to make their way in the new country a quarter century after arriving, even though they didn’t yet speak the language very well.
In 1920  Abraham and Elizabeth moved to California to be near her son Jake Kliewer. They stayed for four years, and the farmhouse stood empty for a few months, a few years, or all four years. John had been living across the Washita near Bear Creek on an Indian lease. He met Katherina / Katherine / Katie Peters—probably at Bergthal church—who had immigrated with her parents and grandparents DeFehr from Russia when she was nine, landing in Galveston, Texas instead of New York which was under a quarantine. She left a crippled sister in Russia, Lena, who decades later would write that communism would someday come to Oklahoma, too, and this frightened the family time and again.
John and Katie married 9/15/1912, living in his small bachelor pad and having four kids before they bought his parent’s homestead in the early 1920s. My grandmother, Mildred, was the first child born in this house, and in a way, I think that always gave her a stronger sense of kinship and honor, a sort of custodian of the history tied up in that place. And yet I have very little understanding of the dozens of lives that are entwined in the now gone wooden boards, brick fireplaces, stock tanks, and well. Like anyone living nearly a hundred years after my grandmother’s birth, I have a few pieces of an image only—and what’s empty in between can be made up or circumvented in favor of what’s left. I could completely make up stories. I could pretend my way through a life I can’t possibly imagine with any ounce of credibility. Or I can try to find my way through what I do have—connect the dots, hop from one stone to another across a moving river that erodes and carries away the farm field sediment. I think my grandmother fought against such erosion in her own way, and somehow, taught me to fight against it in mine.

Geography is one part physicality and one part experience, with a dash of distorted memory. I’m living without the last two, and only one part of the first; I’m not exactly sure where the farmhouse was. I know that the house was near the barn—pictures tell me this. I know where the second barn is—its leaning fa├žade tells me this. I assume that when a tornado took the original barn in 1940 they built the new one in the same exact place. Looking at a satellite image, and remembering a water line I stumbled on, I am confident all of the structures were on the north central portion of the quarter section. I can see from above the drainage of the land, and in one image from one website taken at a different season or year, I think I can see the faint square outline of a structure like some faded Nazca line. The house was burned in the 1990s when cattle fell in the cellar and died, then filled in and farmed over. I think the house was just northeast of the barn and windmill. One of my greatest hopes is to hire archeological students from the local college and go digging—but maybe renting a metal detector would be enough. Not knowing for certain where the house was makes my entire story, my ancestor’s lives, even more floaty and mercurial.
But I do have my grandmother’s words, written down in a memory book she kept later in life. I wonder who she assumed would read it, if anyone would. Who was she writing for—anyone specific? Was it just some faint hope, was it an exercise in nostalgia, was it an attempt to leave something tangible from a sprawling life so deeply lived in one place? Then I have her sisters’ words—three who are still alive. Listen.

The big bedroom on the second floor looked south over the windmill, watering tank, and barn. The upstairs was never finished on the inside, and the hollow walls went all the way down to the ground, which meant snakes like flatheads and copperheads crawled their way to the top floor.  On the east side of the house was the kitchen, which had a covered walkway leading to the summer kitchen—a small, one-room out building to do the cooking so the house would not get as hot in summer. On the west end were the bedrooms on the first and second floors—perhaps as few as four, maybe as many as 6 or 7. In the living room was a sofa, some chairs, and a piano that Grandma wished she could play, but could never afford the lessons. I imagine her sitting on a nearby chair, wistfully eyeing the fine piece of furniture—a symbol of upward mobility. Perhaps when she was in town with her father, John, they heard a tune on the radio, and when they got home he’d sit at the piano and play the song by ear without missing a beat. How grandma must have enjoyed that, jealous of his talent that could be performed as easily on a harmonica or guitar. When he was younger John played in a band at barn dances. During a rain when they were all stuck inside, they’d sit by an opened south window looking out over the fields, smelling the clean air, and John would cradle the guitar across his lap. Maybe he leaned back and spread his legs like musicians do, or maybe he leaned over his instrument like peeking over a fence, whispering words to his kids. Maybe they sang some hymns or german folk tunes. Surely they sat there for a while, happy for the rest and the coolness, the percussion of the rain with the acoustic twang of the guitar strings echoing off the plaster walls.


Diana Studer said...

strUng out like lily pads

That takes me to a life I can't imagine. And yet similar stories would play out on Karoo farms. Rushing past on the national road, passing a sign to a farm. The house itself hidden beyond the ridge. There were indigenous people farming around the water sources. Then the settlers came. There were also poorer farmers who trekked around. Begging for water and pasture for their flocks - from unwilling richer residential farmers.

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

I am transported to a time that might have been feeling your struggles to put memories to the wind...I also love the description of the wheat as a river and the dugouts like lily imagine living in these dugouts...a life I cannot ever imagine...I think your grandmother knew you were the next story teller keeping the family history alive...

Benjamin Vogt said...

Diana--isn't it amazing how history is so alike from country to country? We think we are so different, that our histories are so unique, but the only thing that makes our lives unique is our personal interpretation. Hence we write.
Donna--I hope she did. It's humbling, an honor, and terrifying. I have to get it right! :)