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Country Editor's Boy
By Hal Borland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Hal Borland
All rights reserved.
Three things happened that day. Four, counting the rain storm, though rain doesn't just happen on the high, dry plains; rain comes or it doesn't, and men thrive or go broke according to the rain. But a boy gets his first long pants only once, there is a first time you see the mountains, and only a few times in your life do you meet a strange man who says things you will always remember.
We were moving, my mother and I, to join my father in a new, strange town where he had bought a weekly newspaper. Flagler was only a little over a hundred miles south of Brush, but to get there we had to travel more than twice that distance on two sides of a huge triangle, first to Denver on the Burlington train, then back to Flagler on a Rock Island train, with several hours' wait in Denver between trains. And although we had lived in Colorado five years, neither Mother nor I had ever seen Denver.
We were to catch the midmorning train out of Brush. The household goods had been packed and shipped and we had spent the night with friends. At the last minute, just as we were about to board the train, an argument arose about my dog, Fritz. The station agent had said Fritz could travel in the baggage car with only a leash and an express tag, but the trainman in the baggage car insisted that all dogs must be muzzled. Finally the conductor, impatient at the delay, settled it. "Get that dog on board," he ordered. "If he bites you, bite him back. We can't wait all day." So Fritz was taken in the baggage car, we settled ourselves in a coach, and we were off. But I was too worried about Fritz, and too excited, to pay much attention to details of the trip to Denver. When we arrived in the Union Station I wanted to go to the baggage room and see if Fritz was all right, but Mother said no, it would just start the argument all over again. So we checked our valises and went out for our first look at Denver.
We went out into Seventeenth Street, through the big iron grillwork arch that bridged the street and held high its legend, "Welcome." Up Seventeenth Street as far as I could see lay Denver, a maze of clanging trolley cars, clattering horse-drawn drays, crowds of people on the sidewalks. The street was lined with a bazaar of shops, café's and warehouses. I vaguely remembered Lincoln and Omaha, back in Nebraska, but Denver was nothing like either of them. Denver roared and clanged with a wholly different air, an air of ranches and mines and sawmills and energetic business. It was several years before I saw the new, beautiful, expensive Denver that lay beyond that cheap, rundown, railroad station area of tourist traps and laborers' supplies. That day, the first time I saw it, it was a wonderful, almost incredibly busy place.
We walked slowly up the street, staring at the brightly lighted windows filled with catch-penny wares. We passed dark chili parlors that breathed spicy fragrance and loud laughter, hurrying past them as though they were barrooms. We paused at clothing stores whose windows were crammed with boots and hats and work shirts and Levis. We drew back from a huge dray drawn by a four-horse team of big, dappled Percherons as it came out of a dark alleyway. Mother glared and stiffened as two women, their faces rouged and their clothes exaggeratedly fashionable, passed us, laughing and watching the men along the street. And then we came to a clothing store with a few dress shirts and several pairs of blue serge trousers in a far corner of its cluttered window. We stopped and looked and finally Mother said, "Come on," and we went inside.
An eager, smiling clerk greeted us and Mother said, "I want to look at long trousers for my son, something to match his suit."
What happened after that is still a confused memory. At the time I scarcely knew what was happening. Long pants, my first long pants! In those days, long pants were a sign that a boy was no longer a boy; he was a man. Perhaps not quite a man, if his voice was still changing, as mine was, but no longer really a boy. On the homestead I often had a man's responsibility and I usually wore overalls, long pants of a sort. But after we left the homestead and moved to Brush I was a schoolboy in knickerbockers. I had left Brush in a blue serge knickerbocker suit. Now, though I wanted long pants more than anything else in the world, I wasn't ready for manhood all at once.
There was bargaining, I am sure of that, and there was argument over color and material. But eventually Mother chose a pair that almost matched my jacket. I do remember that she argued the price down from three dollars to two dollars and a half. Then I tried them on, the clerk measured them for length, promised to have them ready in an hour, and we went out into the street again.
We started back to the station, I still in a daze. We were almost there when Mother stopped, caught my arm, and exclaimed, "Look!" Off to the west, in a gap between two tall buildings, was the incredible loom of the mountains twenty miles away. They were huge, bare and rocky. Beyond them rose other mountains, dark and green with trees, countless mountains. We stared at them, fascinated, and we turned down a side street and walked two or three blocks to a place where we could see them better. The sun shone on them, almost glinting, and big, high clouds cast dark shadows that climbed their slopes as we watched. They looked only a few miles away in the clear, thin Colorado air. Seeing them, I knew that some day I would have to go to them, climb them, see what lay beyond. But not now. Now they were a barrier, a rugged obstacle to eyes familiar with the flat immensity of the plains. I was both a plainsman and a boy, the long pants quite forgotten in that breathless moment; I wanted no part of such barriers, no hemming in. I was glad we weren't moving to a town in the mountains. Flagler was a plains town where, Father had written, you could see forty miles in any direction.
We went back to the station and ate the box lunch Mother had brought with us. By then the hour was almost up, so we went back to the clothing store and I put on the new, long, blue serge pants. The clerk made a package of my knickerbockers and we returned to the station. The pants flapped around my ankles and I felt as conspicuous as though I hadn't any pants at all. Then I remembered my stockings and felt better. Beneath those new trousers I still wore the long black cotton stockings of boyhood. I wore those stockings, literally as well as figuratively, for months, until my voice began to find its stable register, until the boyhood stockings were worn out and could be replaced with adult socks.
Our train was ready and waiting. We got our valises from the checkroom, went aboard, chose seats in a coach. The green plush seats had a look and feel that still means train travel to me, and the whole train had that warm, faintly sweet, musty odor tinged with coal smoke that gave way to the smell of sweat and stale tobacco smoke only when the diesel displaced the coal-burning mogul. There was a turmoil of voices, the rattle of baggage trucks, and finally the echoing, "All aboooard!" Doors slammed, iron platforms clanged, and the train began to move. I settled down to watch the passing streets, the factory clutter and tenement confusion of drab, rundown houses, littered back yards, grimy washings on sagging lines, that has marked the urban trackside as long as I can remember. And finally we were out in the open country again, heading southeast, angling back on the second side of that huge triangle.
The train clack-clacked on the rails, the telegraph poles flew past, the locomotive hooted at an occasional crossing, the plume of dark smoke streamed past, and when I looked back the mountains had begun to sink into the western horizon. Ahead and on both sides lay the plains, green with mid-June as far as the eye could reach, gently rolling and without a tree in sight. Here and there was a distant, lonely house, a homesteader's soddy with its nearby barn and privy, and from time to time there was a lone windmill with its low, round galvanized tank, a watering place for some ranchman's cattle.
We stopped at a series of small towns, those nearest Denver bright with paint and kempt with care; but the paint diminished and the green of lawns thinned away as we left Denver farther and farther behind. Otherwise the towns were much alike, each with a main street leading down to the railroad station, the street lined with false-front store buildings, hitch racks with a few saddled horses, a few wagon teams, and a clustering of houses that scattered out into vacancy only a few blocks beyond the main street.
Mother was very quiet. She probably was wondering, as I was, if Flagler would be like these towns, or better, or worse. Of the five years since we left Nebraska, the years on the homestead had been the most difficult she had ever known, years that would mark her character all her life. To me they had been fascinating, though they have shaped my life, too. Father almost died of typhoid fever; we lost our horses when they ate death camass, a poisonous weed; we sometimes had nothing to eat but jack rabbits and cornmeal mush. But there was eventual triumph. Father proved up on the homestead, got a deed signed by President Woodrow Wilson. Then we moved to Brush, the Platte valley town where he had worked as a printer to get out of debt. He took a full-time job and we lived there a year while Father and Mother caught their breath, laid aside a few hundred dollars, and I began to catch up on my schooling.
But Brush was never more than a way station, really. Mother knew that, and so did I when I stopped to think about it. Father wanted to be his own boss, have his own newspaper. So this spring he quit his job and went to look at several papers that were for sale. He chose The Flagler News, bought it, took possession the first of May. He wrote Mother to pack up and move as soon as school was out. The News, he wrote, wasn't much of a paper now and didn't have much of a plant, but Flagler was a coming town and he knew he could make good there. That was six weeks ago. Now we were on the last leg of our move. To Flagler, whatever it was like.
Somewhere around Deer Trail—that town's name still fascinates me; I doubt that there has been a deer there in a hundred years—near Deer Trail I saw a jack rabbit loping across the flats with that crooked, leisurely gait as though its legs didn't quite track. Then I saw the ant hills, a dozen or more of them, two feet across and a foot and a half high. I pointed them out and started to talk about them to Mother. The ants that built such hills fascinated me. I had watched them for hours on the homestead. But Mother hated ants. She shook her head, not wanting to hear me talk about them.
Without warning, a man across the aisle leaned toward us and said, "Pardon me, but I would like to hear about those ants. May I?"
Mother was startled and embarrassed. She looked at him and forced a slight smile. He was a stocky man, middle-aged, in a dark suit and a high, stiff collar. He looked citified except for the deep tan on his face and hands. But he had a friendly look and a reassuring smile. Mother turned to me and said, "Go over and talk to the man about those ants, if you want to." She said the word "ants" as though it was "rattlesnakes."
So I went across the aisle and the man made room on the seat beside him. "Those are harvester ants, the big red prairie ants, aren't they?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," I said. "And they bite like fury."
"So I have read. Have you ever examined a cross-section of their mound, dug into one?"
"Lots of times." And I told him how the main tunnel, starting near the top, branches off into store rooms, some filled with grass seed, some with big white eggs, some with nothing at all in them. I told him about the smaller black ants that usually live there, too. "And once," I said, "I found half a dozen little blue beads on an ant hill. Indian beads."
"Wonderful!" he said. "Maybe there was an Indian buried under that hill. But more likely just a lost moccasin." Then he told me that the black ants are captives, slaves, and how the red ants are divided into castes: fighters, harvesters, nurses, builders, and all that. He explained that the eggs, as I called them, were pupae, immature ants already hatched from the eggs. He told me their Latin name, which I wrote down: Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. He knew more about those ants, without ever digging into a mound, than I thought I could ever learn.
He told me he was a biologist, from some college back east, in Illinois. He used the word "entomology" and explained that it meant the study of insects. He had been out in Utah, studying Mormon crickets. He asked how I knew so much about the big red ants, and I told him about the homestead and how I spent a lot of time watching ants and grasshoppers and tumblebugs and prairie dogs and weasels. Finally he said, "You have a good start toward being a naturalist. Is that what you plan to be?"
I said I wasn't sure what I was going to be, but my father was a printer who had just bought his own newspaper and was going to be a country editor. Maybe I would be one too.
"Whatever you do," he said, "never stop watching and studying the life around you, plants and animals and birds and insects. They are the ones who really own this world. Man just thinks he does."
I said, "Thank you, sir," and as I said it my voice broke and I felt foolish and embarrassed and wished I had on my knickerbockers. But just then the conductor came through the car shouting, "Limon. Next stop Limon. There'll be a fifteen-minute stop and you can get coffee and sandwiches in the station café."
The train slowed down and nearly everybody got off, and the man who had talked to me offered to treat us to something to eat. But Mother said, "Thank you, my husband is waiting to take us to supper when we get to Flagler." Mother never took favors from strangers, and she wasn't going to waste money for a sandwich in a railroad café, so she and I left the crowd and walked down the long station platform.
At the far end of the platform I looked out across the plains to the south and east and felt more at home than I had since we moved to Brush. Brush was a green town with tree-lined streets, set in the midst of alfalfa and sugar-beet fields, a river valley town where you had to go several miles to see and feel the plains. From the station platform in Limon I could see cactus in bloom, and soapweed clumps, and rolling flatlands all the way to the horizon. Limon was a plains town.
We walked the length of the platform twice, and then I noticed the big dark cloud bank in the east. It was rising fast, black and boiling, though the sun was still shining low in the west. Mother saw it too and said, "I hope it's just rain, not wind and lightning." She hated lightning. She said the thunder made her head ache. Even as we watched there was a flicker of lightning, far off and quick as a snake's darting tongue but dazzling against the darkness of the clouds. "We'd better get back to our seats before the crowd," Mother said, so we got on the train again.
The storm didn't break till we had left Limon. It struck first as wind, fierce gusts that made the train almost shudder. The smoke from the locomotive raced past, swirling and billowing, only a shade darker than the clouds. Then the first big, close flash of lightning split the clouds. I was sitting next to the window and even I winced. The thunder, only a few seconds later, made the train's windows rattle. Mother caught her breath and gritted her teeth. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. Lightning flashed again and again and the thunder boomed. Then we were in the rain and I could hear its roar above the noise of the train. It didn't splash on the windows; it washed down them in a flood. Looking out, it seemed as though we were running along the bottom of a river. But the lightning began to ease off, as though the rain quenched it, and Mother opened her eyes, drew a deep breath, and whispered, "There!" Then she said, "I expect they need the moisture. Maybe it's a good sign."
The train slowed for another stop, Genoa. It was the smallest town yet, only a grain elevator, a couple of stores, and a few houses. I could barely make them out because the rain was still coming down in a torrent. We went on and Mother said we were almost there, only one more stop, so I got the valises down from the overhead rack. By the time we stopped at Arriba the torrent had begun to ease off into hard, steady rain. Arriba was only a little bigger than Genoa.
Excerpted from Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland. Copyright © 1970 Hal Borland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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