by Matthew K. Irwin
The sun peeks its weary, morning eye over the crest of a hill and bathes the golden, life-giving grain fields in a wash of warming light. The Cottonwood and Black Walnut trees, entrenched in the winding creek-bottom valley drink in the fresh water as it winds its way down through the Flint Hills. A light morning wind wafts its breath across the sea of Bluestem grass colors, its wavelike swells undulating out over the hillside. Mockingbirds and killdeer join with the daybreak’s syncopated breeze to compose a natural symphony that crescendos into a veritable musical call of the wild. Nature’s works beckon many to this region and keep them here for generations.
Life stirs across the rural countryside as families greet the morning in this rolling land. Unwelcome parental cajoles and the tantalizing smells of a home-cooked breakfast juxtapose before the senses to rouse children from their peaceful sleep. Bacon, sausage, eggs and hash browns array upon the table to fill hungry bellies and jump start minds and bodies beginning their day. The smell of Dad’s coffee perking on the stove and the sounds of his whistling “Jimmy Crack Corn” envelop the morning bustle.
Out here, life moves at a more deliberate pace. People still drive their clay-caked, crusty old American-made farm trucks into town to Love’s Country Café for good old-fashioned family cooking at a reasonable price. Someone inevitably meets you half way in the door with a smile and a bone-crushing handshake--with hands that have worked hard all their lives, through feast or famine or a little of both. The Breakfast Brethren, working retirees with weathered faces seeming to tell stories all their own, sit in fellowship over some hot coffee and a stack of Farrah’s buttermilk pancakes.
Out here, seeing muddy boots yet hearing no one grumble over folks tracking mud into their café or store is commonplace. Tales of drought or bumper crop seasons and late night emergencies hang in a din on the air. After the morning sustenance, people struggle to leave the café as they stand bantering at the still-shiny, chromed, pop-up push-button cash register perched atop the worn glass counter next to the toothpick dispenser and the familiar green box of Wrigley’s Double-mint Gum packs.
Out here, phoning your neighbors during the predawn hours to have them rush over to your place and down into the creek bottom to assist in the potentially dangerous breech-birth of a new calf rouses no ire. People still help one another, sometimes inconveniencing themselves significantly and not another word is spoken. Driving down an old blacktop two-laner or dirt road and having people tip their hat or lift a one-fingered wave at you just for the sake of imparting a little gestured humanity, whether they know you or not, never falls out of fashion.
Out here, younger generations still treat old folks as the treasures they are, a wealth of fascinating stories, the repositories of local history and culture. Octogenarians, even centenarians find audience and respect, as elders possessing the wisdom of lives lived longer and often more fully than most. Out here, grandfathers still hike, shuffle, or drive the grandkids out to remote farm pastures to pick strawberries and fish the joy into life with one another while watching dragonflies flit between the reeds and cat-o-nine-tails and listening to bullfrogs croak their noisy song in concert with the Red-winged Blackbird. Out here, kids learn the valued arts and traditions of line tying, worm digging, and hook baiting. They sit under an azure, Indian summer sky as the warm breeze, full of wildflower scents and the smell of freshly tilled, rich, dark soil waft past. Distant intermittent peals of freight train horn-blasts echo across the hills stretching toward the horizon, lending dissonant chords to the setting.
Out here, many contend that God comes first, family second, and everything else follows the first two. Beneath the church steeple on Sunday morning, people greet one another as neighbors and shake hands with clergy who have baptized, married, and buried members of the community for thirty years or more. Parishioners sit in hand-made oak pews under the iridescent sunbeams slanting down from stained glass windows and listen (and some half-listen) to hundred year-old hymns and last-minute sermons. Out here, people don’t typically accost others with dogma. They just quietly exhibit scriptural precepts in their behavior and lives. Their manners, words, and deeds as a matter of course speak of a kindness, genuine care, and unconditional love that extend from a God who many believe in and perhaps even more wish they knew.
Composer and lyricist Roger Waters, formerly of the musical group Pink Floyd, could easily have been describing this place and its people when he penned the song, “The Gunner’s Dream,” from his album, The Final Cut:
In the place between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field, I had a dream . . . / A place to stay, / enough to eat, / somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street, / where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears, / and what’s more, no one ever disappears, / you never hear their standing issue kicking in your door. / You can relax on both sides of the tracks / and maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control, / and everyone has recourse to the law, / and no one kills the children anymore.
Out here, the world remains young at heart and old and wise in stature. Antique Main Streets still beckon citizens out to engage in commerce and conversation. Aged buildings, long-standing but well-kept endure as mute reminders of a time when humanity didn’t hurry itself quite so much. Out here, most people haven’t allowed themselves to become as cynical, impatient, and rushed as those residing in more urban settings. They base their lives here on goals of quality, not quantity. Out here, most people dedicate themselves passionately to the relentless pursuit of abiding relationships, meaningful memories, and frequent laughter. One could articulate much about the citizens of America’s Mayberry R.F.D.s, but backward, hillbilly, and hickish shouldn’t qualify as monikers with which deservedly to saddle them. Their peaceful, simple, salt-of-the-earth mentality could enrich the quality of life for anyone, no matter where they call home. I just choose to make mine out here, somewhere in the Flinthills of Kansas.
Matthew K. Irwin is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at Texas A&M University. He grew up in Emporia and the Flint Hills and recently spent a year at Emporia State University as a visiting faculty member teaching composition and literature. His research interests center around the social & cultural history of the United States in the twentieth century.