Saturday, March 20, 2010

Rant--Memoir #2 Research Trip to Hell, Er, Kansas

In the last year I've made exponential leaps in understanding the writing life. Well, not exponential--more like concrete affirmations, as in, bang your head against concrete affirmations. Writing is like whipping yourself, it's masochistic, it's like jumping into quicksand. Why do I do this to myself? What, exactly, is the point? The payoff? Why must I be so meticulous? Why is writerly process more like my being processed by a meat grinder?

Last Sunday I left for Wichita, KS to research my family's immigration to Kansas in 1874-1879, planning to use the Mennonite Library and Archive in Newton and visit some ancestral churches (Hoffnungsau, Alexanderwohl, Bergthal).

Halfway there, in Concordia, my back left tire blew at 70mph. Luckily, it happened right in front of the volunteer fire chief's house, and he exhuberantly put on my spare for me. Something punctured the tire. It was terrifying, and I drove on edge the rest of the week.

The only tire place that is open is a mini Walmart-esque place for farmers--they don't have the right tire size. I concede and head to the Holiday Inn to get a room, knowing I lose a day of research. The nice receptionist hooks me up with an after hours tire service. Said service guy tells me upon inspecting my lug and bolts that the fire chief did not thread the bolts correctly into the hub--actually stripped the threads--and he worked hard to get 4 of the 5 to screw in, suggesting I shouldn't even drive on 4, and that it'd take a day or two to get a 5th.

I drove to Wichita anyway. 4 hour trip is now 8. Stopped twice to make sure the bolts were tight. Monday morning I spent 2 hours at the car dealership getting 5 new lug bolts, and finding out I was lucky that the lug threads were fine, cuz that would've been $1,000 for a new lug. So far, I'm only up to $450 in tire expenses.

Wednesday morning my engine light comes on. Back to the Wichita dealership after just driving to Newton (35 minutes one way). An air hose, that helps mix the fuel or something, has cracked and could've lead to the engine, well, seizing. Soon. Luckily this fix was free, but I'd wasted an entire afternoon messing with my car, again.

As for the research itself I made NO HEADWAY at all. Dead end after dead end after dead end. All the sources I wanted to see were not helpful. Even my great great great grandmother was not buried in the cemetary she was reported to be buried in, and I was not going to spend a week searching county records and cemetaries, nor was I going to hire a forensics team to dig up the church plots. My family is lost, in great measure, so when I see someone burning down an old church or razing an old barn or farmhouse, I get mightily pissed. In America, we sure do love to erase ourselves. I think some call it progress. I call it cultural alzheimers.

I ended my trip early, retreated home.

Back in 2006 in Wichita, at a toll booth, an RV sideswiped my car cuz the driver couldn't decide which toll lane he wanted (he'd never driven an RV before, and had no insurance). Much of my car was bent, ripped off, concave. This happened a few days after my grandmother's funeral in Oklahoma, on my way back to Nebraska. I don't care for Wichita.

Point is--$^%*&@^!!. I think the best a person can do with this sort of book project is just cull together what one can from more famous people who shared the boat ride over, shared the homesteading experience, and pretend it's your family--a bunch of relative nobodies who had little money and rented farms until 1884-ish, yet transformed the plains into a completely new landscape in 10 years. Maybe I can compare my road trip to fixing a schooner wheel as a tornado or prairie fire or bison heard approaches.

It's time to move on, and maybe come back to family months later. It's time to research Mennonite missionaries in Oklahoma, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, government policy towards them in Oklahoma territory, and the changing ecology of the most diverse state in the union. At least I'll make some headway. Right?


Lona said...

Sure! LOL! You have taken genealogy research to a whole new level. To go through all of that and then not find anything is so frustrating. I have been doing genealogy research for about 18 years and sometimes I want to tear my hair out at all the dead ends and lack of records.Good luck with your made up family maybe it will go better with them ;-)

Amy said...

Oh, what a trip! There is no place like home.

wiseacre said...

It's time to stop driving.

Les said...

Maybe someone or some thing was trying to discourage you from your quest. Now if you must use poetic license to create a past, you can fill it with people and events more to your liking. FYI, there are still parts of the south where cultural Alzheimers is not endemic, yet.

Town Mouse said...

Oh, that sounds truly dreadful! I think you're right to look at other things to explore.

This would have made a great story, too bad it actually happened!

Kimberly said...

Oh boy! Terrible trip! And it doesn't help that I hate Kansas, based upon my own personal experiences, of course. It's the armpit of America, in my book. Anyway, at least you gave it the old college try. You can't be blamed for such's not meant to be right now, for some reason. The right time will come to you...just be patient.

Craig @ Ellis Hollow said...

Go with the changing ecology of the most diverse state in the union. Send a copy to Colburn.

Re: Dragon Day. It's the students. Get the students interested in starting a tradition, not faculty or admin.

lostlandscape (James) said...

Reminds me of that film about the writer trying to make a screenplay from an impossible book--Adaptation, maybe? Getting there, or trying to, ends up being the greater story, if not the better experience. Glad you made it back in one piece.

Bethany said...

I guess you're not one of those "the journey is the destination" types. Me neither. I was actually just lamenting the other day that nothing I do goes smoothly the first time and more often than not I have to scrap the original plan and improvise. Then it occurred to me that maybe the reason things don't seem to work smoothly is that I enjoy tackling really large and complicated projects. If it was easy I'd probably get bored. The things you want to find are always in the last place you look!

Benjamin Vogt said...

HHG--The genaology was the EASY part. One of my grandmother's sisters had records going back 2 generations, and the rest--to 1650--I found online within a month. Luckily, the only surviving page of a church record book happened to be my family! The hard part is finding stories, of linking people to places and times and events, yet that's the most interesting part, to stand in the place they stood.
Amy--I did where my read sparkly shoes while in KS. It felt appropriate.
WA--Agreed. No more driving. From now on I will walk the 8 miles in the rain to work and back.
Les--I'm one of the rare birds that htinks poetic license in memoir is ok, esp if you say that's what it is, but full blown fiction... nope.
TM--I'll laugh someday, like, when I'm off my rocker.
Kimberly--I think you're right, the right time will come. If this is anything like childbirth, then I apologize for every sexist thing I ever said.
Craig--Still shocked OK is so diverse. Crazy. Tomorrow, my poetry students and I will be burning a dragon in the quad. That may be a euphamism.
James--I think yer right. Since this is a memoir, perhaps that's the way to go--tell more of my story, though I suppose it pales in comparison to emigrating from Russia over the course of two months.
Bethany--Nothing worthwhile is easy. Like you, I do the hard thing, I take on the big thing. Last year I finished two dissertations for my PhD because I knew I could. Crazy.

Jenn said...

"cultural alzheimers"