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Blue Skies and Sonny

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A visit to the heartland

Kansas. The picture in your mind conjures a vast openness of nothing. Driving through Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas does not stir the imagination with beauty. A barren landscape with no lush, green-covered mountains or deep, blue rivers dissecting the country, just the thought of "how much longer until we are through this country?"

What brought many settlers to this area of the now labeled fly-over states? Dreams of owning land, farming, wide open endless skies, now covered with contrails of jets shuttling the masses from one congested city to another. The hope of building a life where the deer and the antelope do play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day. Yes, this is Kansas, specifically northwest Kansas.

Driving through the small towns of Oberlin, Bird City, Norton, and Hill City, one sees the close-knit community, proud of their heritage, their accomplishments of rural life in providing the staples of food supplies for many. The miles go by quickly, the acreage seems so expansive. Old farm implements lie rusting in some fields, open-seated tractors that once were the livelihood of the farmer, now replaced with tractors twice as large, with four-wheel drive and air conditioned cabs. The dust flies in the horizon as the highway lines rapidly go by, and as the dust gets closer you can see the modernization and corporate farming gradually overtaking the once small sections that provided a living for so many. One large combine is an impressive sight, but five combines in a row, stripping the seed away from the stocks of wheat, corn and milo, tell the tale of a dying breed of farmer.

As the farmers are gradually giving up and moving to the cities, so do the much smaller towns go by the wayside; future ghost towns that once provided train service to communities only ten miles apart. The tracks are pulled up or sitting vacant now, and large grain elevators line the rails, standing like the giant statues of Easter Island eyeing the vastness of the ocean - only the ocean is the grain fields of mid-America. The CO-OP dealer with two gas pumps sits vacant; the post office, not much bigger than a living room, still processes the minimal amount of mail for the area; the cemetery fence is slowly rusting with markers of years gone by; and the abandoned, rural schoolhouse features broken windows and old chalkboards tilted, ready to succumb to the force of gravity. So go the small towns of Lenora, Tasco, Morland, Bogue, and Penokee.

A few years ago on journeys through these parts, I ran across an old-timer by the name of Sonny. No last name was needed, for if you spoke of Sonny, everyone in the area knew who you were referring to. Sonny was 87 years old when I met him in 1999, born and raised in the small, rolling hills of northwest Kansas. Sonny was a farmer, not as successful as others, and he later served the community as the sheriff for several decades. Two generations all had stories of how Sonny helped them, and all spoke of Sonny in the highest regard.

After the local school closed in 1973, the building sat vacant for several years. It was a two-story schoolhouse and, several yards away, sat a multi-purpose gym with a basketball court that would be the envy of any big city dweller. The wood floors still glistened, with not a crack or squeak anywhere to be found. The stage, with big, velvet curtains, overlooked the court, while bleachers flanked the opposite sides. Under the bleachers were old locker rooms with a built-in spa. Those wood floors and velvet curtains could tell many tales of children growing up; dreams of becoming an actor or actress on Broadway, or becoming the hometown, local basketball star for the Kansas Jayhawks.

Sonny purchased the old school in 1985 for a mere $1000, gym and all. He never said exactly why he bought the old place, but Sonny connected the two buildings and put in a large kitchen. Now I mean large, except the kitchen did not have several cooking stoves or dishwashers - just a sink, an average oven found in any residential home, several coolers, and two gigantic kitchen tables. The coolers held several cases of beer. The kitchen tables were the bar. The name of the bar, THE ALL PURPOSE.

After working in the fields, several locals would come by for a beer and visit with Sonny and whoever happened to be around. Stories would be told, laughter would abound, a few might pick up a card game of pitch, but one thing was certain - everyone always came by to say hello to Sonny.

To honor Sonny’s 88th birthday, a rocky mountain oyster fry was put on at the All Purpose with at least 75 people showing up. Salads, burgers, desserts and rocky mountain oysters filled the tables, more beer was consumed, and the stories of days-gone-by filtered throughout the room.

Upon my return to Kansas this year, I was saddened to hear Sonny had passed on. I am reminded of “On the Road, with Charles Kuralt,” and how Charles showed us with pictures and words the rural people of America.

Returning to Idaho, the great expanse of farmlands, the barrenness of Wyoming, gave way again to mountains of trees and the valley of Glacial Lake Missoula. The farms can still be seen as the dark strip of asphalt winds its way through the alfalfa and wheat fields of Montana, the potato farms of Idaho, and the forested lands of the northern Panhandle. Those once forested valleys gave way to hay fields and grain fields, with stories similar to those of Kansas, but the terrain has changed for the settlers of these valleys. Unseen from the road, behind windows of lace curtains, were untold other Sonnys - men and women who came to this area early, fought out a living amongst the tall pines, and forged friendships that last a lifetime. Some of these towns have also shared their glory of times gone by, and as the old towns gradually fade away, so has Sonny.

November 15 - November 26, 2002


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Rich Ballard

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