Memo From Mac



Trees Tell Tale of Passing Time 

Brewster, Kansas I remember Margaret McBride, a tall, sun-brown, handsome woman standing on the back stoop with the screen door half open in the hot mid-morning.

"Tuffy!" she would command. "Get chicken!"

The big German shepherd would leap, a great, gray furry missile plunging into the foaming flock of white leghorns that always filled the farmyard. Out of the dusty explosion of squawks and feathers he'd emerge with a terrified young fryer in his teeth and trot to Margaret. She'd wring its neck and drop it in the bucket to be scalded and send him for another. And watching from the barn or wheat bin, I would know we were having chicken for dinner again. And for supper. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. We had chicken two meals a day, every day because it was 17 miles to the store and there was no electricity on the farm for refrigeration, no way to keep fresh meat in the blazing heat.

But I didn't complain. It was the best summer's work I'd ever had. I never remembered Harlan and Margaret McBride without also recalling in warm delight the big dog Tuffy's special role in the food chain.

But that was more than 40 years ago and today, when on impulse I abandoned our straight route to Denver and turned off Interstate 70 at Brewster it was only to angle across the high wheat country of far northwest Kansas. I doubted that even the big white house, where Harlan and Margaret and Tuffy had lived, would still be there.

It was my football coach, Virg Baer, who got me the job when I graduated from high school that spring of 1941. He'd been helping his brother-in-law Harlan during summers and this year they could use another hand and there were no jobs around home. I rode the bus out a week later 150 miles for $2, which left me broke. I stayed broke all summer because Harlan never paid me until I caught another bus back home, just before Labor Day, when he gave me my wages for the whole summer in one check, which I used to start to college.

It didn't matter because I never got to town and they furnished everything, including beer and cigarettes and stamps so I could write to my mother.

(I was surprised and relieved to discover the coach smoked and drank a little beer during the summer because he was such a puritan during season I'd worried all the way out on the bus how I'd hide those weaknesses from him.)

The war sent wheat over a dollar that summer, lifted the acreage limits, and the rains had come exactly right.

For the first time in 10 long years of drought and depression since Harlan and Margaret had married, there was the hint, the feel, the sensation of prosperity in the air.

We worked hard, from the first crack of dawn until after dark, day after day without pause, but it never seemed like drudgery. There was always a kind of happy, bubbling expectancy about it because of a growing sensation that the Depression was over.

Harlan bought a 1931 McCormick-Deering combine with a 20-foot cut for $150 and we overhauled it and cut, I'd guess, 1,000 acres of wheat with it, just the three of us, rotating on the tractor, combine and truck. I learned to drive the loaded pickup with its oversize bed furiously down the dirt roads, and shovel the 100 bushels into the bin without stopping, and be back in the field by the time the combine's bin was full again.

I got $3 a day for "regular" work and $5 during harvest time. After harvest, we kept the tractor going 24 hours a day to finish the plowing.

At mealtime, we'd eat our chicken and listen to the rising crescendo of war news on the radio.

Finally, the war changed everything and I would not return to this corner of Kansas for 40 years.

"You're too young to remember," I told Donna Farley at Reid's Grain Co. in Brewster, when I asked directions to the McBride place. "Thanks," she said, "but Nathan can help you."

Nathan Reid got out the county plat book, made a phone call and in minutes was giving me directions. It was hard to believe it was happening so easily. "Fourteen straight north on the blacktop here," he said, pointing out the window. The road was coming back, out of the mist of memory. "Then three east and one north and a half east. People named Engle live there now."

I thanked him, eager to be on the way. "We've had up to five inches," he cautioned, nodding at the puddles in the road. "It's all dirt after you leave the blacktop may be some washouts."

The land flattened out as we whizzed north on the blacktop, but it was a strange new land. Between the gold slabs of wheat ran the rows of irrigated corn, giving it an odd, Iowa look. Harlan would never have believed it.

The ditches ran full and the rain had made lakes of the low spots in the fields, flattening the wheat and washing out rows of corn. The idle irrigation rigs, like the skeletons of old sea serpents, were a soggy joke.

The dirt road east, which I remembered was the Thomas-Rawlins county line, seemed firm under the car wheels, but we soon came to a spot where the water rushed across it in a flat torrent. I walked through it in my old boots, decided it was passable, overcame Peggy's skepticism, and drove through.

But when we turned north, we came to a washout, and had to turn the car around on the narrow road, between the rows of sunflowers. We went around the section and came at the house from the other direction. "You really want to see that old house so badly?" Peggy asked, as we slithered through another shallow washout.

The house was smaller than I remember it but still the same white with brown trim that I had painted it before harvest started in 1941. The barn was gone, but I recognized the old machine shed. "I worked here 40 years ago," I told a slightly startled Mrs. Engle. After that, there really wasn't anything to say.

We backtracked slowly through the washouts until we reached the gravel road north to McDonald, which took us down off the flat wheat lands through the rain-green pastures and limestone outcroppings of the Beaver Creek valley, up to Highway 36 and back on our way West.

I finally puzzled out what really was different. Once you could see the house for miles, starkly, gleaming white in its new paint. Now it was virtually hidden in the clump of trees surrounding it. Those trees that's what told me how long 40 years has been.

Return to Columns.