American Journey: A Test And Freedom

 My father's father, Earl, traveled for the power company, taking great sweeps to the southwest from Hutchinson, from El Dorado, from Liberal. He dropped the boys off one time near Capulin Mountain in New Mexico.

“I'll be back through in ten days,” he said. “Can you make it north by then to Cottonwood Canyon? I think so, too. So long.”

The boys traveled cross-country, slept in caves, and licked flat pools after rain. They shot quail, rabbits, and doves with a deadeye 22. They could strike a match with that gun, my father said, if they ever had to. One day they ate only a robin, sharing it wing by wing over the fire. Once at a ranch, they traded the story of their quest for a meal. They met a plowman in a dry canyon, and he took them home for stories and peaches dried in the sun. In ten days, 60 miles north from their starting place, Earl met them. He had given them a test and freedom.

“Did you face danger then, wandering around like that?” I asked my father on his birthday once.

“The world was all attached,” he said. “If only we could get lost.” As always, the story sent an invitation to us.

In the ‘30s, poverty gave our people a test and freedom. My father took a string of difficult jobs and a few dangerous ones — fighting fire at the oil refinery, and holding the steel shaft of a star-drill with his hands for a clumsy roustabout to drive and drive with the sledge flashing over his head.

Tornadoes came through on a binge. The Klan ran rife. Diphtheria struck. When his sister lay near death, my father burst into the room, boisterous from play.

“Is she dead yet?” he shouted. She lived, but his bright shout spun from the same
family pluck that carried her through. That pluck made the heroic time. Did our small troubles deserve that name?

“Don't pay attention,” my father said to our blackberry scratches or sidewalk bruises. When we whined over small defeats, my father came back with a Kansas joke.

“They asked the boy, ‘Are you full yet, son?' ‘No,' he says, ‘I'm not full. I'm just down to where it don't taste good no more.'”

Excerpted from Having Everything Right: Essays of Place, by Kim Stafford, Sasquatch Books,

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