Carl Sandburg dubbed Chicago the City of Big Shoulders. Perhaps back then, when the growing cities of the Great Lakes and East Coast bustled with what can only be termed a uniquely American sense of promise, but I think not now. It’s a mega-city of whatever northern and northeastern urban America has become; its soul (with minor distinctions) long-since melded with Philadelphia, Detroit and even the Big Apple. No, such a heroic designation today should and likely would be bestowed by the great poet on what songwriter Michael McGuinness calls the middle of the middle west…Kansas. The Land of Big Shoulders, surely. Broad, flat, muscular, strong, vast, it’s a place where the concept of the land is omnipresent. Even its urban areas are mere minutes from the fields, swales, gentle hills, creeks and rivers that combine to create much of the world’s finest farmland.
Kansans think big. Make that wide. A 70-mile jaunt to dinner and a movie is unexceptional. Farms seem limitless and ranches extend forever. No mountains, no oceans, no 300 day-a-year moderate climate, it is instead a place where the horizons force you to look outward, a place where you don’t climb the ladder, you walk the line. It’s a marvelous state to both ponder and realize life’s possibilities.
Its history is fascinating. Home to the Osage, Pawnee, Comanche, and Kansa, pivotal to the formation of today’s United States as a battleground between Union and Confederate philosophies, invaluable to the formation of the country’s livestock and rail industries, and, from my perspective, home to what have become romantic notions of the American Frontier. Dodge City, Coffeyville, Wichita, Abilene, Fort Hayes, ad infinitum. The Earps, the Mastersons, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill, the Daltons, Wes Hardin, ad infinitum. Kansas sends shivers down the Wild West aficionado’s spine.
Politically, it leans right, but with the strong streak of populism found wherever people grow things. It gave us both Bob Dole and Kathleen Sebelius, which tells us either everything or nothing. Several of my Kansas friends and acquaintances (particularly the educators and entertainers) are hidebound liberals, and some (particularly the landsmen and merchants) are equally conservative. They’re all Kansans…proud to be Jayhawks and Wildcats, and proud of the unique place they and their cousins, the Nebraskans, hold in America’s soul.
Pat and I drove through Kansas in late February in the midst of a 300 mile-long storm of frozen rain and snow to attend a memorial service for my friend Dick Wellman. (In fact, it’s 75 degrees outside on a late June morning as I write this, yet I’m cold as a St. Vrain trout just thinking about that winter sojourn across Kansas.) Even while concentrating on the road in horrible conditions, I could still feel the lure of the place. Pat thinks it’s our age. As a teenager, she couldn’t wait to get off the farm and out of small town Nebraska. As an adult, there have been a thousand times she’d have given anything to go back. Circumstance always prevented it, but I’ve always been lured by the rural Midwest, as well.
Driving west to east across I-70 in a storm is pretty intimidating. You try to take your place in line behind a semi…far enough back to be able to see, and hope the trucker can see, as well. Idiots abound, and take to the left lane as if it’s a spring day in Guadalajara. Infrequently, they’re seen stuck in the median, standing outside their overturned vehicles staring into the distance, or even at the next town’s diner, their steering wheel-molded hands clasping a hot cup’a joe. Through the mist and the clouds, the churches of Kansas stand tall against the weather, and the height of the omnipresent grain elevators is rivaled only by the magnificent church steeples. Catholic, Methodist, Mennonite, Baptist. Kansans take their faith seriously, and being a Kansas preacher is, by all accounts, a pretty good job. And no, 99.999 percent of Kansans don’t have any love for the Westboro Baptist Church, either. (Of course, it’s not really a Baptist church, having no affiliation other than appropriating the name.) It’s a festering boil that’s only tolerated because Midwesterners actually understand the concept of free speech.
We stayed in Hutchinson, Kansas the night before Dick’s funeral. (Kansans call the place Hutch.) Our trip had taken about double its estimated time, and my pals from the Hole in the Wall Gang were in even worse shape, having left later, thus encountering the storm’s full wrath. The Brunetti clan – Tony, Denise, John and Anthony – caravanned with Greg, Dale, Pineapple and Monty on the twelve hour crawl from Denver. What’s more, they had to return the next day after the service. (It’s the way western folks do things. “If I don’t sleep and drive a few extra hours, I’ll get home in time to tan that buffalo hide or teach that new mustang how to count to ten.”) We all hooked up the next morning in nearby Sterling, Kansas at a brunch/lunch put on by the American Legion in honor of Dick, and met a lot of people we knew, and a lot of people we’d heard about. We also picked up a great recipe for baked pork chops.
Dick’s children were charming, as we knew they’d be. Of course, Brad’s already one of us, since he’s in the Hole in the Wall Gang, and it was a great pleasure – make that an honor – to meet Greg, Alan, and Emily. I already felt as if I’d known them for ages, just from talking with their father. Since Dick’s death a few weeks earlier, I’d corresponded with Alan and Emily at length, as well as with Tricia Bridgess, a marvelous e-conversationalist. Alan’s wife Lora Lee is lovely, and seemed to take Dick’s death especially hard. She, like her husband, is a fantastic musician, and it must have been tough for her to take up the piano duties at the funeral. Some time after Emily, Greg, Alan and Brad’s mother Myrtle passed away, Dick remarried JoAnne, and it was a substantial pleasure to meet her children, as well. Pat and I got to know JoAnne fairly well before she unfortunately succumbed to cancer, and it was moving to see how much they loved and respected Dick.
Dick’s service was both humbling and moving. It was held on what would have been his 90th birthday. Despite the weather, just about everyone came. The Methodist church in Sterling was packed to overflowing, and the pastor gave a fine treatise on the meaning of Dick’s life. All too quickly…it was over. In no time, it seemed we were at the frigid cemetery, where Dick’s remains were interred next to those of Myrtle. An old friend of his whose name I’ve misplaced read a resolution in memory of Dick adopted by the Kansas State Legislature. It noted his life as an exemplary Kansan, a warrior, farmer, rancher, father, husband, and adventurer. It was, and is, a true family treasure.
Following the service, Pat and I headed back to Hutchinson to spend time with Race and Marnie Proffitt. Race’s mother Marse had been Dick’s friend and companion for a few years, and we’d gotten to know all three of them at Gang functions in Denver. Race and Marnie had recently moved from Denver to Hutchinson, landing in a spectacular home that boasts stunning architecture and a pet chicken in the backyard. Their dog and the chicken get along famously, and they don’t have to buy many eggs these days. Race’s brother and sister-in-law joined us for cocktails before taking back off for Coffeyville. Later that evening, we had a fine time as the Proffitt’s guests at the Prairie Dunes Country Club, and they had us about halfway convinced to go home, pack a trailer and move to Hutch.
The trip home was uneventful, but pretty somber. Pat and I talked for hours about Dick and his world. About the people that surrounded him, and how lucky we were to have become part of that circle. My admiration of the Midwest was renewed, and I had the feeling that as long as there’s a Kansas, we Americans are in pretty good shape.