At Home on This Moveable Earth

At Home on This Moveable Earth

by William Kloefkorn


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Whether writing about a boyhood in the Great Depression, the bond between a young man and his family, digging storm cellars and ducking tornadoes, or the dropping of the atomic bomb as experienced by a paperboy in small-town Kansas, Kloefkorn brings a congenial mixture of seriousness and humor to his subjects. Here and there the commonplace lends itself to the not-so-common question: What is the odd relationship between power, terror, and beauty? Why are human beings torn between staying put and moving—in intellectual and spiritual as well as physical terms? And how much of who we are is composed of who we were? Rife with insight, At Home on This Moveable Earth is as wonderfully readable as the first two volumes of Kloefkorn’s memoirs, a thoughtful tour of a curious character’s life so far and a model of retrospective introspection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803243514
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 03/28/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

William Kloefkorn (1932–2011) was an emeritus professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University and Nebraska’s state poet. He is the author of many volumes of poetry and two previous memoirs, This Death by Drowning and Restoring the Burnt Child, both published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Read an Excerpt

At Home on This Moveable Earth

By William Kloefkorn

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-2768-X

Chapter One

Calf bucket. Full to the brim with fresh, frothy milk, it's what my
grandfather permitted me to carry from the cream separator out
of the porch and around the house and across the backyard to the
barbwire fence where under the lowest strand I would push it to
feed the waiting calf. Calf bucket. It is also the rusty receptacle I
found precisely where I had left it - near the lone stanchion in the
barn near the alley, barn large enough to accommodate our one
Jersey cow, barn with its weathered shingles and unpainted one-by-eights
well on its way to oblivion.

We'll need another bucket to put the dirt in, my father had said.
We already had one bucket, a discarded lard container Father had
brought home from the cafe. But we needed another container so
that as I trudged up the earthen steps to empty one, my father said,
he could be filling the other.

I could sense that something big, maybe even something gargantuan,
was about to unfold, but I didn't know exactly what that
something might be. Early evening it was, and a Sunday. Mother
was holding things down at the cafe, but on this particular Sunday
Father was not there to help her. Instead, he was here at home,
sporting a faded pair of blue overalls and alikewise faded blue
work shirt with the sleeves rolled up beyond the elbows. In his
right hand, the one with two middle fingers missing, he held the
family shovel. When he told me to fetch the calf bucket I could see
in his grass-green eyes a peculiar if not ominous triad of determination,
anger, and spite.

The calf bucket had been given to me by my grandfather, perhaps
because I had been playing with it and had asked if I might
take it home, perhaps also because its sides were battered and its
bottom with half a dozen pinholes leaked milk somewhat on the
order of a sieve. I had wanted it so desperately that once at home I
had taken it to the barn where having placed it near the stanchion
I promptly forgot why I had wanted it so desperately. But when I
needed it there it was.

With the calf bucket in hand I followed my father into the
screened-in porch at the southwest corner of the house, followed
him over narrow tongue-and-groove boards to the door of our
cave and storm shelter, door with its matching tongue-and-groove
boards, door that lifted easily, thanks to a system of ropes and pulleys
that the ten-year-old mind had, and to this day has, difficulty
understanding. The earthen steps were dry and uneven; I took
them one at a time, slowly, my father in front of me now balancing
himself with the family shovel in his right hand and the lard can in
the other.

Our cave was not a place conducive to a sense either of well-being
or safety, in spite of the fact that we called it not only a cave,
that word for us being synonymous with a place for the storing of
home-canned goods
, but likewise a storm shelter. Perhaps it somewhat
fit Robert Frost's description of a home - that place where,
when you have to go there, it has to take you in. Well, I cannot
remember our ever having put our storm shelter to the test. I
can remember many storms, thunder and hail and wind and sleet
and snow, and I can remember hearing the intense and persistent
whistle at the power plant telling us to take cover, but I cannot
remember that we ever obeyed. For one thing, we were seldom all
of us at home when the siren sounded. I and my younger brother
and older sister might be in school, or busy separately with after-school
activities, and more than likely Mother and Father would
be at the cafe taking orders and dishing up bacon and eggs or hot-beef
sandwiches. For another, none of us, I believe, wanted to descend
into the quaint fecundity of a dirt-walled, dirt-floored cave.
You can the goods, yes, peaches and green beans and tomatoes and
a varied assortment of jellies, and when you want a pint of this or
a quart of something else you lift the cave door and feel your way
down the uneven steps and with faith and doggedness and uplifted
hands you locate the string that when pulled will give you
light, and because you forgot to bring a rag or a cloth you part the
spider webs and dust off the jars with an open hand and make
your selection; then, reversing the process, you retreat as quickly
as possible.

And, finally, we did not resort to the storm shelter because
my brother and I were eager to experience a tornado firsthand, to
watch it and to feel its power to discern for ourselves whether it
might be something more than hearsay or legend. When the siren
sounded we would stop whatever we were doing and rush outside,
if we weren't there already, and search the skies for anything remotely
resembling a funnel. Often we saw one, or thought so, and
we would study it until the eyes burned, until in spite of rain and
an impressive wind the funnel or its illusion lifted to join a roiling
of blue-black clouds.

For me, an opportunity to witness a bona fide tornado would
not present itself until I had graduated from junior high and was
about to enter high school. Because I was not a whiz at mathematics
I often went to the Attica Recreation Parlor to learn the nuances
of numbers by playing eightball. One late afternoon in
late August I was deep into this learning process when the siren
sounded. The sudden stridency did not altogether surprise me; all
afternoon blue-black clouds had been forming to the southwest,
and a stillness had hung in the air like a slow, silent, extended expectation.
But inside the pool hall, though the door that faced the
main street was open, both clouds and expectation were replaced
by the sweet acridity of cigarette smoke and the downright lovely
clicking of one pool ball against another. Was I shooting the stripes
or the solids? In this competition do any of the numbers except the
eight on the black eight ball matter? And was I winning the game?

Probably, because my opponent was Frankie Biberstein, who
had trouble with both angle and distance because one of his eyes
wandered. Frankie would be a freshman, too, would be a junior if
he had somewhere along the educational line applied himself.

Boy howdy, Frankie said. Must be a tornado.

So of course we racked our cues, paid our bill (ten cents per
game, the winner receiving a five-cent redeemable chip for each
victory), and hurried to Frankie's father's black and battered International
pickup, which Frankie, using the eye that did not wander,
drove like a madman west on Highway 160 to where the clouds
appeared most threatening.

Frankie's father owned the pickup, but in all other respects it
belonged to Frankie. On weekdays he drove it to school from his
farm three miles west of town (that same direction we were now
headed), and on Saturday nights he patrolled the streets as if he
had been deputized - from the elevators at the south edge of Main
to the school at the far north end, from the cemetery at the west
edge to the town park at the east. He'd put the International in low
gear and creep the streets from sundown until, as they say, the last
dog died, the radio dialed to a clear-channel station from somewhere
in Texas intoning news and music and ads for everything
from lug nuts to noodles. My favorite was a come-on for engagement
and wedding rings, one of each for under five dollars. Cheap
enough to throw away, the baritone voice told us, but nice enough
to keep.

The first time we heard that one Frankie almost drove us into
the ditch. We had been moving beyond the speed limit, the windows
up to keep the sound of the muffler from competing with
the radio, and we were on our way to Anthony, sixteen miles away,
to buy a brand of nuts not available in any of the local stores - Tom's
Toasted Peanuts. Frankie enjoyed that sort of thing, something,
anything, to give him an excuse to drive somewhere out of
town, especially if he had someone to share his eccentricity. Often
I served as that someone. Frankie was not very social, and he absolutely
did not drive the streets of Attica hoping to catch the eye of
a female. He was not altogether a loner, but he wanted to keep his
relationships both few and at a distance. As an only child he had
perhaps been doted upon and at the same time been given opportunities
and responsibilities peculiar to a youngster being raised
on a farm. Who knows how young he had been when he soloed on
the family's row-crop Farmall, or how old he had been when he
first sat behind the wheel of the old pickup.

Cheap enough to throw away, but nice enough to keep. He's talking
about my International, Frankie had said, and probably it was
this connection that had so nearly caused my buddy to chortle
himself, and me with him, into the ditch.

Raindrops against the windshield were large but not plentiful,
and the wipers at the moment were working. The blue-black
clouds were flecked with white; they seemed to be turning slowly,
and moving toward us, and shortly after we had navigated an S
two miles from town and were again hauling our anxious little
asses west, we saw the funnel.

Boy howdy, Frankie said, there she is!

In an instant Frankie had reined in the pickup, half of it resting
on black macadam, the other half on the highway's shoulder. In
another instant we were standing in the pickup's bed, looking west
over the cab at what was no longer a legend. It was a funnel, all
right, made not of tin or metal but of swirling winds that enabled
it to bend this way and that as it moved its extended snout through
a windbreak of cedars and cottonwoods at the south edge of the
highway. It was maybe half a mile away, serpentining slowly, heading
rather directly toward Frankie's old black International.

It never occurred to us that we might be in mortal danger - danger,
yes, but not mortal danger. We were much too young to be
mortality's victims. Had we been fully aware of the danger, we
surely would have left the pickup running; but we hadn't. Frankie
had turned her off, knowing that the pickup, chiefly because of
temperamental carburetion, might not start quickly, or at all,
should we decide to indulge what my Marine Corps handbook
would call, as I learned many years later, a retrograde movement.
Or maybe the scene had tricked us into believing that we were
watching a movie, and that before long a cowboy wearing a wide-brimmed
hat and riding a white horse - William Boyd, perhaps, as
Hopalong Cassidy - would come into the picture at the last moment,
lasso the funnel and take it to the ground and without losing
his hat punch it silly. Or maybe we were improvising a version
of chicken, Frankie and I equally unwilling to register fear, to back
down, or to holler uncle.

In any case, there we stood, occasional raindrops the size of
quarters pelting our faces, thanks to wind gusts from the southwest,
and we wiped them away with the backs of our hands and
watched as the funnel moved through the trees, parting them and
leaving a swath wide enough, as later Frankie would put it, to drive
half a dozen four-bottom plows through.

When suddenly the hum of the storm erupted into a terrific
roar, I looked quickly at Frankie, who had turned quickly to look
at me. There was an intensity in his better eye that bespoke more
satisfaction than fear. Is it possible that he wanted to experience
the funnel more fully than I did? Yes, I believe so, though I managed
a difficult grin, which Frankie returned. Then he said something,
probably something on the order of Boy howdy, here she
comes! but the words were lost in the god-awful growl of the now
not-so-distant maelstrom.

Only one other time in my life have I heard a sustained roaring
to equal that of our approaching tornado. It came to me one summer
when I was working as a gandy dancer on the Atchison, Topeka,
and Santa Fe Railroad, Panhandle Division. I and my coworkers
were replacing the nuts and bolts that secured the steel
splices that held the rails together, and it was my job to swab the
sides of the adjoining rails with grease before the splices with their
new nuts and bolts were affixed. To perform this task I would dip a
wide soft-bristled brush into a large bucket of melted grease, then
give each side of the rails a long black sticky lovely coat. It was not
a difficult job, not an intellectually challenging job, not one that
any of my courses thus far in college (I would be a sophomore in
the fall) had bothered to prepare me for, especially Beginning
French, and fortunately the railroad job required a minimum of
prerequisites - and accessories. One bucket. One brush. One back
strong enough to tote the bucket.

One foreman capable of exercising compassion.

Case in point: the day I greased the tops, no less than the sides,
of the tracks.

It had been an unusually hot day in early August, and by noon
our foreman, Wilson, was unusually fatigued, which meant that
shortly after lunch our foreman under a maverick cottonwood lay
flat on his back, snoring, maybe dreaming of what he would say
when after waking he would assemble his crew in a circle, insofar
as four subalterns can form a circle, to present his weekly homily
on the importance of railroad safety. Because of this: Ray Wilson
believed in following the rules, in taking every precaution known
to humankind to prevent injury or death to anyone in his care, his
job no doubt equal to any humanitarian impulse hanging in the

So when I looked up to see a green board - that is, a green orb of
light high on a steel silver pole - warning that a train, most likely a
freight, was about to pass, I decided to grease the tops of two parallel
rails for say ten to fifteen feet, then stand well back to watch
and thus determine the effect of the grease on the fast-moving
train. The inspiration for this act did not strike me like a bolt from
the blue, though the August skies were indeed blue and cloudless,
nor did it reach me via one of the muses. Several days earlier one
of my colleagues, Gene, had suggested that I do it, said that if I
didn't I had shit down my neck, and a day or so later the challenge
was repeated, feces included, so that eventually the dare had become
the forbidden fruit that reached its irresistible maturity as
our foreman lay on his back snoring under the disinterested cottonwood.

Well, I was young then, and to some extent fearless; I was the
baby of our five-member crew, and to be honest I knew, down
deep in my heart, that Ray liked me more than he should. He had
one child, a daughter, and surely he loved her. But he wanted a son,
too, or so I believed, because occasionally, if the context were appropriate,
he would say to me, Now, if I had a son like you, I'd ...
And he would go on to tell me, and those others who might be
nearby, what he'd do, and all the while he'd be looking at me as if
I were in fact his son. He was a balding, large-chested man with
amazingly short legs. Always he wore tan workpants and a blue
cotton shirt. Always black low-topped boots. Always a growth of
whiskers that somehow, unlike the forbidden fruit, never reached
full maturity. And always, unless asleep, snoring, he wore a straw
hat with an impressively wide brim.

I began and continued the job as quietly and as swiftly as I could.
One bucket of grease. One soft-bristled brush. One back strong
enough to tote the bucket. Were my co-laborers watching, most
importantly the one who had tossed out, then repeated, the dare?
This would be Gene, who helped Mr. Shaw manipulate the machine
that removed then replaced the nuts and the bolts. Or would
the oldest member of the crew, Joseph Mora, our welder who
beaded the worn-down ends of the rails, take notice? He was a
dark, quiet, bright-eyed man who chuckled at almost everything,
maybe because he did not speak our English very well, but who
seldom laughed outright.

I did not bother to notice or to care whether anyone might be
watching. I was coating the tops of the tracks with black sticky
lovely goo. I was light as cottonwood seed on water as I moved over
the ties and the chat, swabbing. Heat ascended in discernible waves
from the rails. Not much of a breeze. A rivulet of warm moisture
under my T-shirt teased the spine. The green eye continued to offer
its warning.

I finished in less time than it takes here to tell it, and when looking
west I saw the light on the engine moving starboard and port,
searching the rights-of-way, and heard the rumbling, I wondered if
indeed I had done something destined now to destroy us all, including
the engineer and his misbegotten helper. In a flash I imagined
the huge front wheels of the locomotive hitting the grease and
spinning suddenly more rapidly than tongue might tell or pen
inscribe, imagined sparks flying as the engine jumped the tracks,
countless cars huge as ogres following suit, imagined one of those
massive ogres hurtling toward me, toward Gene, toward Mr. Shaw,
toward Joseph, toward our snoring foreman, imagined ...


Excerpted from At Home on This Moveable Earth
by William Kloefkorn
Copyright © 2006 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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