The Simple Life III


By William Urban

The sustained call for sustainably makes me aware of how few people know anything about their families’ rural roots, back when sustainably was a fact of life so pervasive that everyone merely called it being frugal. Every family in the small Kansas towns of my youth had chickens in the back yard or neighbors who did. Kitchen scraps going over the wire fence was instant recycling that led to eggs and drumsticks appearing on the table.

If today we allowed free range chicken to roam fenced yards, we would use a lot less weed-killer and fertilizer. Of course, the dog problem would remain. My grandparents had to give my big dog — my father’s favorite — to a farmer because he chased chickens. Ginger had come with me when I was sent to Kansas for two years while my mother recuperated from an incredibly complicated gall bladder operation. (She had grown up drinking ultra-hard water that outsiders simply couldn’t swallow.)

There was much to praise in small town life then. I remember summer evenings watching the village elders playing horseshoes and competing in super-serious croquet matches. There were three clay croquet courts in my grandparents’ town of 800, each with a concrete border, stakes that were in to stay, and balls that could have been used by Civil War cannon. (My grandfather’s heavy mallet and ball, alas, were stolen by a renter who stayed in our house while we were overseas.)

There were downsides, too. My grandparents did not have hot water, and while My grandmother would heat water on the stove, a bath was still nothing for a dust-covered six-year-old to look forward to. No one who has ever had to pump water in winter or feed a wood fire would be likely to complain that electric power was bad.

Well, few people complain about electric power per se. Only that produced by coal, oil, nuclear fission, and more recently, natural gas. I grew up with windmills. No cattle rancher could do without them. But they didn’t fix themselves, and when they didn’t work, the cattle suffered.

I’m told we shouldn’t be eating beef anyway. That is a viable principle today, as long as we have the ability to bring in vegetables and fruits from a distance — another no-no in the sustainability theology. Back in the day — not so long ago, actually — everyone canned whatever was in season. Before air-conditioning this meant boiling the jars in a summer kitchen, and that was only the start.

Today many gardens produce only lettuce and tomatoes, which make for nice salads until it gets hot. In the past a salad wouldn’t have sustained any working man or woman. My family used to say someone ate like a harvest hand. Since few farmers could afford a thresher that would sit around unused for fifty weeks of the year, most hired crews that made an annual trip from Texas to Canada. (I remember my father’s frustration in trying to pass one line of threshers after another on hilly two-lane highways each time he took my younger brother and me from Oklahoma to spend the summer in Kansas.) Feeding a dozen hands required a crew of women and lots of chickens.

I never got to ride into town on a wagon, but my Bohemian great-uncle remembered coming to Kansas from Nebraska in a covered wagon. He spent more than half his life looking at the rear end of a horse. In town this meant that everyone had to smell the horse hockeys that were ground into the dirt streets. Women with long skirts hated getting their hems soiled, and women with short skirts hated the flies.

Paved streets and automobiles changed all that, but both relied on petroleum products. I visited some oil fields when I was just old enough to look around for post-high school employment. Crude oil everywhere, and the work was so hard the workers boasted about it. But it wasn’t that hard, I later learned. When I was laying pipe, unemployed oil workers would quit after a day or two. The improved wages ($1.25 an hour, less taxes) didn’t make up for the ten hour day.

By then I owned a VW bug that didn’t have a gas gauge. I was a little upset the day I started on a short trip right after work and ran out of fuel. I couldn’t understand it. I had filled up two days before and hadn’t driven it, and why was the emergency switch to use the last gallon turned over? The next day I learned that my little brother had practiced his driving without telling me. Without leaving that little town, he not avoided getting within my eyesight. I still can’t imagine how he burnt off that much gas.

Gas was pretty cheap, just over thirty cents a gallon, but that eight gallons was a big hit for my wallet. Cokes were a nickel and hamburgers a quarter, but they were free at my grandparents’ house and I needed to save everything I could for college. Scholarships were few in those days, and I was not about to make a division I football team. I read my grandfather’s two Kansas City papers every day, but never saw any mention of Division III colleges in any context. My mother had gone to Kansas Wesleyan on a combination piano scholarship and a job as a waitress — where she probably perfected the sharp tongue that was family folklore — but I had no talent in either area. Moreover, all my friends were going to big universities. The herd instinct is powerful, even when the choice is between different herds.

What every young person had in common was an intense desire to get out of the small towns. They were great places to grow up, but not for making a living. Even the sons of farmers, who knew that they would inherit a nice place in twenty or thirty years, did not hang around for the old man to push off. Besides, there were the brothers and sisters to consider. Each would get a share of the inheritance. Would there be enough left to make a go of it? In the meantime, would they end up among the ageing bachelors at the pool hall or the old maids tending their sustainable gardens?

Review Atlas (Sept 5, 2013), 4.

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