We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

My formative years from ages 5 to 17 were lived out in rural Kansas. I vaguely remember living in an upstairs apartment for a bit before moving into a very small house. I think my Dad said it was priced at $12,000. It was on a small street in the small town of Gardner, Kansas. I don’t remember a lot, but when I started into kindergarten through 1st grade, I have strong feelings of racism. In fact, I was the target of an attack by a group of kids who beat me up on the playground. I cried to the teachers who stood there and just watched. I mean, I saw them looking at me…eye to eye. I remember gravitating toward friends who were Mexican even though I am Native American. It seemed like a natural thing to do. I remember riding my bike home from school, which as a kid seems like a long way away. I should Google Map it to see how long it actually was. I had to take different routes home because some kids would throw rocks at me. I mean, it was Smalltown USA and racism in the 70’s was still quite apparent. As a kid, I was pretty naive to dangers, but I learned very quickly. Sometimes I walked to school along the main street. Some high schoolers would woo me into their car and take me to school now and then. I know I shouldn’t have gotten in their car. But they told me I was cute and really bolstered me up. Then, one day these same kids walked by my house, held me down in my front yard, and pulled down my pants. I remember going into my house crying. My Mom was on the phone with someone and I was trying to get her attention. I give her a lot of grace since she was young too. She probably wasn’t even 24 years old at that time. I guess she really didn’t want to be bothered by me and just stuck her tongue out at me. That horrific experience still sticks with me. I forgave my Mom in my own mind even though I never told her what happened.

My Dad got a job with Ford Motor Company working with “computers”. Back in those days, “computers” had to be manned around the clock as they processed data. All the binary codes were recorded on cards that were fed into loud machines. My Dad worked nights most of the time. So we would sometimes stay with him overnight. Every few hours, he would load boxes full of these cards onto a cart and wheel them to the warehouse for storage. We would ride the cart with the boxes. In my first years of college and even my first year of Ph.D. studies at Illinois, we would stand in lines for each class and pick up a computer “card”. We would take it to admissions where they would feed the card into the computer so we could be registered. I sometimes wonder where all those gazillion cards went to from those days from all the companies in the world.

When my Dad got his new job, we moved to the country. We lived in a fairly large community out in the middle of nowhere. We had huge yards and dogs roamed freely. I knew about the yard because I would mow the lawn with a big riding mower. I got spanked a few times because I liked to put it in reverse and then back into drive really quickly to pop a wheelie. That would eventually break a pin in the transmission and cost a lot to fix. I also got a good spanking when me and my brother covered the entire side of the house with mudballs. It had just rained and we started throwing them at the house. I’m not sure why we did what we did sometimes. We had to watch out for wild dogs, or even the unleashed tame dogs. I used to ride my bike with the banana seat for miles around. I knew this one farmhouse that had doberman pincers. I would try to stay on the hard part of the gravel road so I wouldn’t make a sound. But they always heard me. I would end up peddling with one foot and kicking at the dogs with the other. I was so scared and surprised I never got mauled. In those days, you also had to fear the guy with a shotgun full of salt pellets. I heard of kids who got shot with them for trespassing. The salt would burn as they picked the pellets from their skin. We spent a lot of time in the woods. We built huge treehouses, made BMX bike racing courses, and anything else you can imagine. We would gig tadpoles and drink from the creek that was probably full of sewer water. You had to watch for the wild dogs out there. One of our friends had huge St. Bernards. They would sometimes wander into the woods and knock us down and put their teeth on you. They were really scary for a little kid who weighed probably 80 pounds against a 150 pound dog. One Winter, we stumbled upon one of these dogs that was shot by someone. It was completely frozen and had been there for a while. I also stumbled on one of my cats in a ditch who was shot by a pellet gun by someone. Life was tough out in the country.

Anyway, what got me to this subject of Kansas was a few Facebook posts I saw from friends in Kansas. As I think back, nobody has really changed very much. They married high school sweethearts and I don’t know of a single one of them who has divorced. I know not all of them were church going people, but all had a great respect for religion. I see it in the things they say. They are all patriotic as ever. Now I know where I got my values and sense of Country. It was not only my parents, but the pervasive culture in which I was raised. We used to have biker gangs who wore leather and were really long-haired hippies. I mean, it was the 70’s. We wore bell bottoms and listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Joe Walsh and Cream. They were kind of scary sometimes and you knew not to mess with them. But some of my friends’ older brothers, Dads, and uncles were part of these gangs. Every Friday, this gang would play basketball against the local sheriffs. I’m not sure how that would come about, but you could always go and watch them play at the high school after school got out. One of them dunked a ball and broke the glass backboard. I mean these guys played for real! I’m sure there was still racism, but I remember so many brown friends who were the most popular kids in school. So I don’t think we fared too badly. When I eventually moved to Michigan for my senior year in high school, I was amazed at the lack of brown or black colors. I mean, those white people were really white. Like ghostly white. And they talked funny!

I know I’m not in Kansas anymore but I feel like I am every now and then. It never happens close to the University campus. Those kinds of values and morals are very rare there. You have to wander to the County Fair or down to the Amish community to find that kind of mindset. A local farm store and even a campground is where I find my people. The snobbery and pride in excess is something I run from. I mean, I was a University Professor at one time. I really hated the types of people who thought they knew better than everyone else. It abounds on college campuses. And these types of people are paid to teach our kids. Its the root of intellectual elitism that pervades our country. I like the down to earth people who are true to themselves and their beliefs. Those kinds of people make me feel like I’m back in Kansas again.

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