Wednesday, July 18, 2012

From the New Memoir

After nearly three years of research I've finally begun dipping my toes into the book, Turkey Red--1,000 pages of notes and I've written only 7,000 words of attempted outline. What am I getting at? What's at stake? As I uncover and learn about who my grandmother was--so adamant was she to teach me about the past--I learn of her through exploring Oklahoma, a state I've loathed. Geology, conquistadors, prairie, Native Americans, German immigrants, oil. What we learn about Oklahoma we learn about our country--because this state is an accelerated microcosm of America, for good and bad. I'm not sure if we've learned our lesson.


          I leave the one lane paved road and turn in to the rutted, grass road that skirts the northern edge of what was once my family’s 1894-1960 farm. In the distance to the southeast is the barn and windmill, further from the main road than I’d remembered. I take the road slow, each hole and ridge carved by rain and tractor is magnified in my low sedan. I creep forward, the sound of weeds brushing the bottom, scraping and being caught in the suspension and axles, grasshoppers rising in front of me like fire against the nose of the space shuttle re-entering earth’s orbit. A few grasshoppers land on my windshield; I stop to photograph one from underneath—it looks as if I caught it in mid-leap.       
It’s 9am, and I got up early knowing that a soupy 100 degree days wasn’t far off. I sit in my car soaking in the last bit of cool air and organize my back pack—a hammer and saw to remove a funeral home rain gauge I’d wanted for a year from inside the barn, a notebook, my cell phone (in case I ran into a mountain lion), sunscreen, and glasses. Turning off the engine I swing out  my feet, switch shoes like Mr. Rogers on his way out the door, stand up and face the stubbled field of wheat, the sun pushing down on the landscape like a metal press.
            I knew this was my time, a moment I’d waited years for, a moment of re-entering and entering I needed to feel deeply. I was putting too much pressure on myself, for sure, but I needed to feel the landscape in ways I can’t describe. Everything in my life leading up to this point, and perhaps all the way until my death, in some way hinged on the next few hours in a hot, red Oklahoma field I’d visited grudgingly with my Grandmother some thirty years before. I didn’t want to be here, and more than anything I wanted to be here.
            The barn and windmill are a hundred yards from the weedy road. I hop over a gully and up the small incline covered in milkweed, and enter the wheat. Harvest was weeks ago, earlier this year due to a warm spring. My feet trip against the 6” high stubble, the sound like wrapping paper being torn from a box. I can smell the sweet dryness of it, remembering when I was a boy at harvest and my mom, along with the other wives, backed their cars up to the fields at noon and opened their trunks to tin-foiled casserole dishes and gallons of iced tea. I’d sit with my dad, propped in the shade of a combine’s massive front tire, and with each bit of a hotburger take in the wheat chaff’s dust. It is what I imagine cigar ash to be.
            I don’t stop but once or twice, just long enough to take a photo of the barn, which in the past year has lost more of its sheet-metal roof, peeled back by a southwest wind in a series of thunderstorms. The tree that hugs the northwest corner wall is dead—last year it was completely green, and I wonder if the owner of the land has poisoned it, making it dry and ready to be cut down, removed with the barn and windmill for another two thousand feet of cropland. Last fall the farm went up for auction, and my uncle had tried to buy it just to get it back in the family. But land prices are high in the Plains, some corn fields going for near $10,000 an acre, and my uncle was quickly outbid, forced to sit there a while longer watching the price double to what he was willing to pay. 

            My pace is steady to the barn. I search for the house’s water line I’d seen in the field a year ago about a hundred feet north of the windmill, but I can’t find it. I guess where the house was and try to imagine the walk to the barn in the heat of summer, in winter, for morning chores and evening turn down. I find this hard to do. I have no reference, no personal experience other than being told to get the mail from the mailbox or to mow the lawn. I’m not even sure where the house was—the only picture I have is reprinted from the Corn newspaper for the town centennial, and the image shows the first barn. If the second barn was built in the same place, the house could not be where I think it is. Or at least I can’t make sense of the farm’s layout. Everything is flattened for the combine.
            Beneath the windmill I stand silent, looking up, using it to block the mid morning sun. Aunt Marge has said she remembered falling to sleep at night to the sound of its rotating blades, the occasional squeak, that she could not rest soundly without listening to it. But it’s long been rusted, locked into one position, only a few blades left twisted by heat or wind. Driving in the country only windmills remain, silent sentinels, markers of homes and families and lives that aren’t even ghosts anymore—so little is left, memory spread so thin and among distant relatives that the truth of a place is a mercurial distortion of senses only. I remember the smell of the wheat harvest, but it was not on this field, yet this field reminds me of harvest and so I will remember having been a boy here. Hearing stories from family in their 80s and 90s, I don’t know how much is the land’s truth and how much is their personal, lived truth through the warped ripples of time.
Yes, I remember being a boy here on this field, milking cows, cleaning chickens, washing the intestines of hogs for sausage lining, ice cream on Sundays, swimming in the catch pond, fishing in Gyp Creek for catfish. I remember being a boy here on this field, seeing Cheyenne wandering across, heading southwest to Big Jake’s Crossing, hoping they’d just keep on going. I remember being a boy on this field, hitching up the wagon to Bergthal church, looking forward to afternoon Fafsa afterwards—jelly on warm zwiebach—playing with other boys in the barn, chasing girls around the stock tank. I remember none of this, sentimental, nostalgic fiction, images more of movies and books than anything real. I have no idea, I only have now, my 35 year old body sweating, seeking the shade of what’s left of the barn.
I enter the east side, the wall long gone, and pretend I’m opening a door—I even reach out my right hand into the air and push aside the memory I don’t have. For a split second I think I feel another presence entering me, an image of a man or woman sliding into my body and passing through, another dimension perhaps intersecting my own. For a moment I know two worlds converge and pass each other like strangers on a sidewalk, unimaginable to one another and somehow so similar.
The old funeral home rain gauge is gone, the one with the three digit phone number from the early 1900s. There are the nail holes that secured it tightly to the post, but not nails—clearly, someone pulled them straight out. I want something from this place. I want something rusted, something that was used and touched. A few feet from the corner post is a light switch hanging in mid air, the electrical wires on both sides suspending it from the wall. I take out my hacksaw and make quick work of the wires—the switch still works. The wires trail to a light socket above. I’m amazed these things are still here, the roof so fragile, only the north wall left. An old washing machine lays nearby, who knows if it was my family’s or not, but I think about putting the basin into my back seat, turning it into a planter—but it’s excessive, isn’t it? What can these things give to me in the end? Another life? My life? No, none of that. Only imagination, only hints, guesses, some lost piece in a puzzle no one puts together anymore.

There are two boarded up horse stalls on the north wall which are full of cloth scraps, barbed wire, and torn pieces of weathered lumbered. On the missing south wall four posts remain holding up the roof, a fifth has given way since last spring, and one is buckling in the middle. In another year I think the roof will be down, a barn that has stood since around 1940 when a tornado took the first.
I must walk around the structure a half dozen times, weaving in and out, taking photos of everything, which isn’t much really. I stand in the shade and feel little. A bird settles on the windmill platform but against the light so I can’t make out what it is. A quarter mile to the southwest I see the natural gas stock tanks, and the short tower with the exhaust flame flickering bright orange. I could walk south to the catch pond, but it’s so hot, my skin on fire even under a layer of sunscreen. Yet I decide to try for Gyp Creek to the west. When I’m halfway a series of electrified fences stops me—I think this is a narrow strip of pasture. So I follow the fence north to a tree on the northeast corner, and I wonder if this is where the baby daughter of my great great grandparents is buried, if this is where the lilacs were by the orchard, if this was even where the orchard was.
I just don’t know. I have no idea, not a clue about anything. The flat land, the perfectly straight rows of golden wheat stubble, it’s all an erasure, immediate, quick, and efficient. We leave so little. Maybe our families, our blood, but even they carry only a faint memory, in youth trying their best to shake off the shackles of stories they’re likely to long for years later. We pass on impatience and progress. This is what Oklahoma is—a symbol of speed, a glancing perspective of a few moments in history. A prairie one year, farms the next. Grazeland one year, fences and railroads the next. Bison one year, sodhouses the next. Cheyenne one year, European immigrants the next. Gold. Oil. Cotton. Maize. Interstates. Windfarms.
And then, walking back to the barn from the east, the sun to my back, it hits me so suddenly, a storm of three years, hundreds of books and articles, everything I could find which is only 1% of what I’d like to know. I’m here. I’m here in the land. My pace slows and my feet stick to the red earth. In the corner of my eyes there are tears. And only if they are tears of exhaustion, of traveling all this way across the Plains, across 130 years, they are my tears, my anchors to this place. Grandma is there in the distance, prodding me around the farmhouse she grew up in, the house where she saw her grandmother’s ghost lift up through the floorboards and on out the window when she passed away in the middle of the night.
I don’t want to be here. I hate this place, this heat, this oppressive backwater town linked to other backwater towns where it seems like electricity finally arrived earlier this year. This weight is on my chest, my shoulders, I’m sinking in the soil and dust. I can’t stand being here. I can’t move. There’s nothing I want here, there’s no life here. I’m thankful my parent’s moved us to Minnesota when I was ten, where there was life, richness I’d never known, opportunity like no other, challenges to lift me out of myself and to push me further than I’d imagined.
There’s none of that here. A person could die in their teens, and not physically die until they were 80. A person could cry here for the lack of that opportunity, for the misunderstanding of their lives, for their ancestor’s lives, for all the pain of starting a life in a foreign place with a  foreign language, with a weather they didn’t understand, with strange red men walking into your house and putting children in the cabinets. My land. No one’s land. 130 direct Janzen descendents. 200 indirect descendents.
No, this isn’t my land. This isn’t my country. The red dirt, the red wheat, the red men, painted with the soil and burned by the sun, everything the same color, the same hopes and dreams and fears, the same agonies, the same births and deaths. I was born here. I have this place in me. I want to live in a place like this, to raise my children in this peace that drives a person inward, makes them mad with their lives. When I die I will leave nothing but a flatness, a dryness, a stillness, the perfect silence of this field where the windmill is rusted and the tree leafless, both objects that will surely be the last things standing against the years. 

I give up and head for the car. Getting in I exit one world and enter another like flipping a light switch. My wife is at home. My home is far from here. I drive to the Bergthal cemetery a mile or two northeast and visit my family’s graves for the third and perhaps last time in my life. I walk the ground where the church stood before the community burned it down to dissuade vagrants. In my car I take out a notebook and write the following:

"In the field to the north, where the Bergthal church was, torn fake flowers litter the folds of grass and soil. On the northern edge a thin strip of wildflowers--thistle, sunflower, winecup--hold even more blooms, merging wild with synthetic sentiment and nostalgia."  

             "Wind comes from the southwest unimpeded across the plains like Coronado, searching aimlessly for the city of gold, perhaps to conquer an emotion in all of us that stirs and frightens--that we will never be enough, that the land will echo beyond our transparent lives, that we are as fragile and easily tossed into the wind as topsoil and song."
If you'd like to read about my visit to the Black Kettle National Grassland and the Washita Battlefield, please link here. It's another side to the above.


Christina said...

Oh yes, I want to read more!

Benjamin Vogt said...

You do? Hey, so do I! Gotta get my rump in gear.

Diana Studer said...

That is amazing spell-binding writing. I usually speed read and skim blog posts. But this one, I read, slowly, going back over phrases and sentences.

Learning said...

I really enjoyed reading this. I feel the same about trying to capture the history of my family also.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Hauntingly beautiful thoughts:

"Driving in the country only windmills remain, silent sentinels, markers of homes and families and lives that aren’t even ghosts anymore—so little is left, memory spread so thin and among distant relatives that the truth of a place is a mercurial distortion of senses only."

"Hearing stories from family in their 80s and 90s, I don’t know how much is the land’s truth and how much is their personal, lived truth through the warped ripples of time."

"What can these things give to me in the end? Another life? My life? No, none of that. Only imagination, only hints, guesses, some lost piece in a puzzle no one puts together anymore."

Gaia Gardener: said...

Out of curiosity, Ben, have you ever had a chance to visit the big Nature Conservancy prairie in Oklahoma? Maybe it would help you think of even Oklahoma land as alive, underneath the death of the wall-to-wall farming that currently has strangled it so thoroughly.

Benjamin Vogt said...

D--I said it once I'll say it again, you honor me. Truly!
L--Thank you so much! I hope you try to capture that history?
G--Good quote choices. I melt when people quote my work back to me--not bacause I'm shallow, but so very happy. I have been to the NC prairie, and Black Kettle, and the Wichita Mtns. And prairies here in NE. I just haven't made it to those sections and the dichotomies. I can't imagine virgin tallgrass to the horizon! Wow! Sigh.

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

I'm with Diana...I slowed and read this carefully going back over it...I felt as if I was standing there with you experiencing this and wanting to know more...Benjamin, I really do like this and will be waiting for more snippets and the finished project...what an amazing journey of discovery, rediscovery and the!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Donna--You warm my heart and give me hope, faith. I need to crank this thing out!

Bom said...

It is always good to look back on where we came from. Both my wife and I enjoy learning about past generations but neither of us will be able to put that informations down as eloquently as you do. Kudos!

Benjamin Vogt said...

Bom--You can do it too! Just go for it. I can't tell you how thankful I am that my grandma wrote down as much as she did (and it really isn't that much, not enough).