The Power of Anticipating Beauty

Gateway to the Flint Hills

It’s not what you hold in your hand that makes a good photograph; it’s what you hold in your heart.

Dancing Queen

Dancing Queen

I often grab my camera with one thought: there is something beautiful waiting to pose for me so I can show it off to the world. The best images I capture begin with this idea: I anticipate beauty.

Fortunately, one of my favorite places on earth to discover beauty is in my backyard; the Flint Hills of Kansas. If you think Kansas is boring then you need to join me on a hike through the Flint Hills and let her forever change your mind. She will seduce you with her charm.

I recently loaded up my cameras and headed to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve snuggled in the middle of the Flint Hills. As I began a leisurely stroll down one of their many hiking trails, I was reminded of the power of anticipating beauty in nature. Not far in the journey, I saw this beauty dancing without music.

Along the journey that day, I discovered a few others.

The Easy Chair

The Easy Chair

DSC_9761

Sycamore Sky

 

Alone. Strong.

Alone. Strong.

DSC_9770

Angularity

 

 

Wonderful things happen when we anticipate beauty in nature, in people, in families, in our jobs, and in our selves.

  • Our overall attitude towards life will be better.
  • People will enjoy our company much more.
  • We will find the solutions to problems.
  • We will enjoy the hidden treasures that others pass by.
  • We will make the world a much better place in which to live.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as something that, once seen, pleases the eye.

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Passin’ Gas in Church: the Night I Understood God Has a Sense of Humor

church

Part 8 of the Growing Up Kansas Series

One dare not laugh in the little country church I grew up in or some little old lady would accuse you of sinning.  Church was a somber place where the virtues of God competed with the vices of the devil and the devil seemed to be winning; we were supposed to feel bad about that. The French philosopher Voltaire believed cogito, ergo, sum (I think, therefore I am). However, my Mom believed culpa, ergito, sum (I’m guilty, therefore I am).

One rarely laughed in church because, well, God doesn’t laugh because everyone is going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that ain’t nothin’ to laugh about. After all, you might get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church so the last thing you want before meeting your Maker is to defile the holy of holies by laughing.

St. Peter: “So,Rick, you thought Mrs. Kennedy falling asleep then having her dentures fall out was funny?”

Me: “Oh, no, St. Peter, I was actually crying because I felt sorry for her, not because I was laughing.”

St. Peter: “Nice. Not only did you laugh in church but now you’re lying about it, too. It’s no wonder you got ran over by a car while crossing a street after church.

Like Pavlov’s dogs salivating when the light gets turned on, I developed a morose tendency to laugh during the most unsuitable times. I blame it on my upbringing; the devil makes me do it.

However, even though we weren’t supposed to laugh, we catalogued various kinds of laughter.

The Snicker:  It was okay to snicker at a lame joke Dad told for the umpteenth time. We kids sat bored out of ever-loving minds on the back row of the west section of pews. We hid Louis L’amour books in our Bibles and acted as pious as little heathens can. The 5-Star General- my Mom- sat about halfway up the east section with a couple of her little old lady friends; a brood you might call them.

Mom was our barometer for The Snicker. If she snickered, we snickered. When she snickered she turned like an owl spinning its head to make sure we were snickering, too..  We obliged so we could get an ice cream cone later.

The Chuckle: This laugh was a response to something Dad said that was accidentally funny. He didn’t mean for it to be funny, but he would tangle his tongue and turn the fiery darts of satan into the diery farts of satan. Of course, we all had to quickly repent of having fun lest we’d get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church.

The Chortle: This was reserved for a guest speaker that was actually funny. One missionary told great jokes about cannibals and gave us hope that we weren’t all going to hell on a grease-covered slipper slide. If one could tell a good cannibal joke, one was assured a devoted following by the back-row boys at our little country church. The next missionary with the hateful marimba-playing wife would have done well to include cannibal jokes in his arsenal.

The Snort: This was caused by another kid or by Old Roy Brenner. Old Roy’s eyebrows were so bushy it looked like a gray squirrel died and left his tail on Roy’s forehead.  Old Roy was a crotchety old guy that started complaining as soon as he walked in the door; we loved him because he annoyed the little old ladies thereby making himself the object of their scorn, not us.

Furthermore, Roy introduced us boys- right there in church- to the first naked female breast we ever saw that wasn’t crossed out with magic markers in a National Geographic.  We were lost somewhere on the trail with Louis L’amour when he snorted and motioned with his eyebrows to look across the way; a lady with a dozen kids was nursing. She was not a bit bashful about having her buffet line and silverware on display both before and after her little diners filled their bellies. Naturally, our young minds were piqued with scientific curiosity so we sat staring like a deer-in-the-headlights. Old Roy’s name is still mentioned with great reverence.

The Snort could be contained if you inverted your hands and pinched your nose between your little fingers and stuck your thumbs in your ears.  Usually, we could keep it under wraps until someone start giggling again and you felt the pew tremble. But the Snort was as combustible to the brain as a 2-liter 7-Up bottle stuffed full of Mentos and, once it escaped, sounded like an elephant sneeze. You could go to the bathroom and get a Snort under control until you came back and the pew startled trembling again.

Then there was The Wheeze.  A Wheeze meant you just got up and walked out of church thinking that if you got ran over by a car while crossing a street after church, you’d die a happy boy.

Wednesday nights was pretty low-key in our little country church.  The adults sat on the east side and the kids sat on the west side.  The girls grew weary of getting in trouble because of us boys so they moved.  The boys staked our claim on the back row and the girls set up camp in the front. Life was good.

We were in our typical catatonic state but on our best behavior because we wanted to go to Dairy Queen afterward.  We lived by the beatitude, blessed are those who behave themselves, for they shall get an ice cream cone after church.

One of the worst things a public speaker can do to an audience is to say in closing and not mean it.  To this day, if someone says in closing, I last about 30 seconds. Again, it’s a Pavlovian response. Dad was notorious for tormenting us this way.  Dad finally closed his remarks and told us all to bow heads and close our eyes; God only listens if your eyes are closed.

Half-way through the prayer, a Gatlin gun of flatulence erupted from the young girls section which, that night, was occupied by just two girls. We had enjoyed Tommy Orton’s chili for school lunch that day and apparently various parts of digestive system of one young lady declared war on each other.  Gastrointestinal combat raged inside her as battle lines were drawn and each side rumbled tanks into place as they jockeyed for position. Then one crazed soldier finally launched an offensive and shot off a round of rapid-fire retorts that were so loud we expected heavy artillery to follow.

Dad stopped dead in his tracks. We boys jerked our heads up to see if we could tell which of the dainty damsels had spontaneously combusted.  Soon the mystery was revealed as one young lady yelled at the other one, “Oh my gosh, Alice, that smells awful!”

I don’t know if Dad ever finished his prayer that night; we bolted for the door like someone zapped us with a cattle prod.  We collapsed in the snow wheezing for air and did not care if we did get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church. If we did, we would die in as rich a bliss as any prepubescent boy has ever enjoyed.

Being good predestination Calvinists, we couldn’t help but conclude that this was God’s will for our lives.  As the Good Book says, all things work together for good to those who love the Lord. I can’t help but thinking God thought it was funny, too, but I doubt if St. Peter grills God like I anticipate being grilled.

It turns out we didn’t get ran over by a car while crossing a street after church that night. We got an ice cream cone instead.

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PHOTO:  In Full Moonlight

I captured this image in the Flint Hills of Kansas, near Florence. It was taken during a full moon.

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Why a City-Slicker Joined the Kansas Farm Bureau

Kansas Peace

I grew up to be the kind of adult I made fun of when I was a kid: a city-slicker.

I grew up in the country and learned my work ethic as a kid working for local farmers and ranchers. In the summer, I’d fry like an egg on a John Deere 2050 plowing a Kansas field or sweat every drop of water out of my body bucking hay bales into dilapidated barns. During the school year, I’d get up at 5 AM and milk cows at the local dairy then chop holes in the ice-covered pond with an ax.

I made fun of people who lived in the city; also known as city-slickers. A city-slicker was anyone who lived inside the city limits of a town any size, whether in New York City or Smallville.

But for the last three decades, I’ve become a city-slicker. Granted, I live in rural Kansas and am surrounded by pastures and cropland so I’m not too far away from a farm but I haven’t planted wheat or milked a cow in years. I’m sure the cows are grateful.

However, the more I’ve been engaged in the fight against hunger, the more I realize the importance of farmers and ranchers.  Experts say that agricultural production has to increase by 75% in the next 35 years in order to feed the estimated 9 billion people by the year 2050. In the next 35 years, we have to produce more food than in the entire history of mankind.

A good friend of mine, Steve Baccus, just retired as President of the Kansas Farm Bureau (KFB)- a position he held since 1999.  In a recent conversation, Steve made a comment about me being a member of KFB (like he assumed I had been forever). I stammered, then admitted I never joined. Steve was very  polite and encouraged me to join. Then he threatened to drag me behind a JD 2050  in the hot sun and make me buck hay bales in the 110 degree Kansas heat.

Joking aside, I was disappointed that I hadn’t thought of that earlier. When I speak about hunger, I often spend a great deal of time talking about the importance of agricultural development and the Farm Bill. Therefore, it was a no-brainer to me to become a Kansas Farm Bureau member.

Life goes full circle because I’m now working for a farmer again.  Floyd Hammer is the founder of Outreach, Inc. and refers to himself as just a farmer from Iowa. It is true, he has a lovely farm in the middle of some of the richest soil on earth, but Floyd saying he is just a farmer from Iowa is like Peyton Manning saying he plays a little football on Sunday afternoons. Floyd also started the first plastics recycling plant in the U.S.A. and is an entrepreneur at heart.

Floyd and his wife, Kathy, founded the Outreach, Inc. in their retirement and have grown it into an amazing international nonprofit that feeds hundreds of thousands of hungry people. A couple of years ago, Outreach acquired an 8,000 acre farm in Tanzania, East Africa.

I’m now working on a farm again. No, I’m not bouncing on a tractor in the hot sun; most of the work I do is with words and numbers writing business plans, proposals, and etc.  I get the privilege of watching a vision unfold that is so grand in scale it staggers the imagination; starting from scratch with 8,000 acres of African soil and creating an holistic agricultural system. You can read more about Shallom Farm.

I’m now a member of the Kansas Farm Bureau. After Steve’s comment(he really didn’t threaten me, but if I didn’t join, he might have), it made perfect sense for me to become a KFB member. And here are my reasons why:

1. Agricultural development is the key to ending hunger. If we have to increase agriculture production by 75% in the next 35 years, then we need to support farmers in every way imaginable.

2. Farmers grow what we eat.  That seems like a no-brainer, but there is a surprising lack of knowledge about where our food comes from. A friend of mine who is a teacher told a class that spaghetti grew in a field and every once in a while a spaghetti farmer would cut it down. 1/2 the class believed her. USDA has a great program called Know  Your Farmer, Know Your Food.

3. The Farm Bill is the single largest mechanism in the U.S. that helps feed the hungry. Did you know that 80% of the Farm Bill is about food and nutrition programs?  I used to think the Farm Bill only concerned farmers, but then I discovered that the Farm Bill is the number one tool that our government uses to fight hunger.

4.  Farmer are facing increased regulation by the government and need our support.  President Ronald Regan was quoted as saying, “The 9 most dangerous words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Like most small businesses, increasing regulation and taxation makes it difficult to be a farmer. While the government touts small businesses as key to our economic future, they make it harder for small businesses to succeed.

5. Farmers are the most courageous people I know. When you consider all the risks involved in farming, it’s a wonder any of them sleep at night. For them to make any money, they make huge cash infusions up front on fuel, seeds, labor, and fertilizer, then wait for Mother Nature to take her own-sweet-little-cherry-pickin’-time to grow the crop. Along the way, a variety of things from pests to storms can obliterate a crop in a matter of hours or minutes. It takes a lot of courage to be a farmer.

One of the most inspirational times in my recent history was attending the FFA convention in Louisville where I wrote, Meet 56,000 of my New Heroes. FFA (at one time stood for Future Farmers of America, but now it’s just FFA) has nearly 600,000 young people who are members. It is encouraging to know so many bright young minds care about the future of agriculture. And not all of them live in the country; urban agriculture is increasing in size and impact.No one pays greater homage to the American Farmer than Paul Harvey in his essay, So God Made A Farmer.

I’m proof  you don’t have to live on a farm to support farmers. Join a local farm group in your state like the Kansas Farm Bureau; they are part of the American Farm Bureau which has Farm Bureaus in every state in the nation.

Before you take that next bite of food, say a little prayer and thank a farmer. Because somewhere, some farmer/rancher got out of bed this morning at 5 AM and will work until sundown to grow the food you eat. If you know a farmer, thank him or her for what they do (did you know the majority of farmers in the world are women?). If you don’t know a farmer, find one. They’re easy to spot; they are the people working harder than everyone else.

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Photo: Kansas Peace

I captured this image south of El Dorado, Ks.

 

 

Growing Up Kansas: Fear-The Fastest Form of Transportation

29 Cents a Gallon

Part 7 in the Growing Up Kansas Series: Mostly True Stories of my Youth

The first time I got in trouble for exploring, I threw the family dog under the bus. Wanderlust took over my little four-year-old mind and I grabbed the dog, Boo-Boo, and headed out across the pasture. Mom alerted the Lollipops (Little Old Ladies of the Partyline Society) that I was missing and they called all the neighbors to rendezvous at the McNary house to look for that stupid little kid. Someone soon spotted my head bobbing in the ravine in the pasture a hundred yards from the house and I was rescued. When quizzed, I responded, “Wasn’t me. Boo-Boo made me do it.” I learned early the power to deny and make counter accusations.

In the early ’60’s, parents didn’t live in total fear of child abduction like they do nowadays. When the Lollipops sent out the Mayday signal, not one person thought I’d been kidnapped. Eaten, maybe, but not kidnapped. Mountain lions, coyotes, or cows might have got me, but not a two-legged critter. The cows were always suspects in anything that had to do with the torment of little children, but they were at least honest when interrogated. They happily confessed to inflicting physical and mental harm on our young souls.

In those days our parents booted us out the door in summer as soon as the breakfast dishes were done. Even on good days they didn’t let us back in until dinner. That was okay; we didn’t want to go back inside anyway; the Generals hung out in the Command Center and nothing good happened in there that concerned us little kids.

Although the aforementioned escapade with Boo-Boo was before my memory bank started storing things in the gee-that-was-fun-let’s-do-it-again vault, I’ve always had a desire to explore.

A desire to explore is a mixture of curiosity, mischief, danger and mayhem. If you can’t get hurt then you’re not exploring. If that rock doesn’t have the chance of a venomous viper coiled ready to lunge, then you’re not exploring. If that cave doesn’t have bootleggers ready to chop you up in little pieces, then you’re not exploring. If pirates can’t make you walk the plank on Hobson’s Pond, then you’re just goofing off. Exploring has to involve varying degrees of pain.

We created various categories of explorers. See where you fit.

Whiny Butt Explorers- Although we weren’t allowed to say the word butt, the Whiny Butt explorer commenced grumbling at the first suggestion of let’s-go-exploring! They came up with more objections than federal regulators about why it was too cold or too hot or too many bugs or gee-I-could-lose-my-legs. Whiny Butt Explorers grew up to be Discovery Channel devotees who watch shows about the Amazon and suddenly become experts on the jungle. But one glimpse of their soft hands and tender underbellies lets you know the riskiest adventure they embark on is Black Friday shopping.

Mickey Mouse Club Explorers; These lucky ducks stumble on buried treasure by accident while planting trees for Arbor Day. They really aren’t explorers, but they discover the bounty for which explorers search. Then the Mickey Mouse Explorers march right out and buy an Indiana Jones hat and bullwhip. We loathed them and made fun of their hats until they bought us ice cream.

He-Man-Woman-Haters Explorers: Like the Little Rascals club of the same name, their curiosity is about one degree warmer than their fear. They nervously lift up rocks looking for snakes; they get stuck in caves and bloat like a toad gorging on June bugs; they go coon hunting in the dark with a 100K watt floodlight strapped to each arm and one on the head. I’ve done each of these. The HMWH explorer is a conflicted person often conned by a Daniel Boone Explorer or, heaven forbid, a Mount Everest Explorer. They splurge on exploring books, then splurge on exploring, then splurge on therapists or medical doctors to heal whichever wound is most life-threatening.

Daniel Boone Explorers: They’ve done their research, poured over the maps, then wander off believing they have a strong chance of returning home alive and relatively unscathed. Other than having to wrestle bears on occasion, they’ve stacked the odds in their favor and know they will live another day to explore. They might have a few bullet holes in their coonskin caps, but their scalps are still in tact. Daniel Boone Explorers instill confidence in followers with well-narrated stories of adventure. 

Mount Everest Explorers: These are the die-hard adrenaline junkies who, by the time they are forty, have broken every bone in their body and go through snakebite kits like they’re M&M’s. Mount Everest Explorers are best admired from a distance. If you get too close, they will suck you into their adventure screaming like a cat with its tail slammed in the door. Mount Everest Explorers often end up being boiled in pots by cannibals.

One day my nephew Kendall and I decided to explore unchartered territory. We poured over maps, checked weather conditions then pointed our Zebco 202’s east and trekked to a pond in the middle of untamed pasture where we expected large fish to be waiting on us. This pasture seemed less dangerous than Hobson’s Pasture because none of our mortal enemies, the cows, lived there. Hobson’s Cows spotted us leaving and rushed to the fence to offer encouragement and advice.

“Hey,” Marge mooed, “come on back this way. We promise we won’t chase you this time.”

“No,” I defied her, “you told us that the last time and I still have scratches on my back from diving under the barbwire to get away from you.”

“Well, suit yourself,” Gertrude sneered, “You’re going to die anyway. There’s rattlesnakes in that pasture.”

Hobson’s Cows were more annoying than Kanye West at the Grammys.

The new pasture was more difficult to navigate because no cows had eaten or tromped the grass so it was a veritable jungle of tall grass and weeds. Neither the Generals nor the Commander-in-Chief trusted us with sharp objects like machetes so we bare handed it through the prairie jungle with our Zebco 202 fishing poles held high.

Either the fish saw us coming with our Prince Albert can of worms or the cows had telepathically warned them to go into submarine mode and run silent, run deep, because our bobbers never showed a nibble. Not even the chubbiest night crawler dancing like Little Richard could get a rise out of the catfish inhabiting the murky depths.

We fished an interminably long time – at least fifteen minutes. Then we decided to go slashing back through the grass. About thirty feet into the grass I heard the distinct sound of a rattlesnake; those dumb cows were right.

I hadn’t learned to cuss yet or I would have said that word that describes what you do in your underwear when your ten-years-old and hear a rattlesnake. The wind was blowing hard enough to rustle the grass so my little mind tried to ration that it was just the grass but then… OH CRAP THE COWS WERE RIGHT THAT’S A RATTLSNAKE! To make things worse, I couldn’t see it and since all reason had vacated my imaginative mind, I could not figure out where it was.

Little kids don’t have much normal reasoning capacity anyway, but shoot a little fear-laced adrenaline in their veins and they turn into hyperventilating morons. We levitated like cartoon characters then shot off across the pasture running on the grass tops. Mel Brooks, in the interview with the 2,000 year-old-man, said it best: fear is the fastest form of transportation.

I could hear the other rattlesnakes giggling like a bunch twelve-year-old boys at an R-rated movie:

“Hey, Larry, you got them real good!” the mouthy one, Jimmy said, “Each time you rattled they trembled a little bit more! They shook more than our rattles! You scared them so bad they left their fishing poles behind, but what is that godawful smell? Smells like someone, OH GROSS, I JUST SLITHERED IN IT.”

Served him right.

Exploring is an adventure and an adventure is something you sit at home in your easy chair dreaming about. However, when you’re out having an adventure, you wish you were sitting at home in your easy chair.

All this writing about adventure has me itching to go explore. I’m surrounded by acres and acres of wide-open country in Kansas, I think I’ll lace up the hiking boots and start walking. I should be okay. It’s still winter and the rattlesnakes are hibernating. But I think I’ll traipse down the old abandoned railroad bed instead of thru the pasture full of cows. I’m too darn slow to outrun them anymore.

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Photo: 29 Cents a Gallon

I captured this image in Fall River, Kansas

Growing Up Kansas: The Day We Burned Old Man Leonard’s Pasture

mater

To get the flavor of growing up as country kid from Kansas, you should add sauntering down a country road in the back of a pickup truck to your bucket list. It should not matter to you that it is illegal. And, at some point, you need to add pick-em-up truck to your vocabulary since that’s what our Missouri neighbors call them.

Although some folks think that riding in a convertible produces the same wind-blowing-hair-in-your-face type of excitement, they are sadly mistaken. Nothing compares to riding in the back of a pickup and yelling snide remarks at cows grazing by the fence. Since we dared not yell at the cows in Hobson’s Pasture who ended up chasing us home each time, the protection of the pickup empowered us to insult the cows with reckless abandon. Discretion is the better part of valor.

There are numerous things we did as kids that could have maimed or killed us which is why we’ve all grown up to be well-adjusted adults. Chief among our unwritten codes was this; if the pickup is leaving the driveway and we can go, we are riding in the back. Seatbelts, schmeatbelts; we defied common sense as often as we could. Long before Big Brother decided to make it the law to wear seatbelts, we rode in the back of pickup.

Unless you’re a teenager out on a date, boredom quickly strikes a little kid in the back of a pickup. We’d make it about a hundred yards down the road and start looking for something to throw out. The girls seldom rode along leaving us without that option, so we’d stockpile rocks to throw at signs. On one occasion, we brilliantly decided to take firecrackers and toss them out the back.

Firecrackers in the 1960’s were lethal. Long before attorneys started suing anything that breathes, you could get enough TNT at the Maynard’s Bait Stand to blow up a small Buick. Consequently, I was instructed by my Mom to never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off.

I grew up with punitive justice swiftly meted out by either Mom or God, so I had a healthy fear of lighting a firecracker and throwing it. Naturally, my nephew Jeff (who was a year older than me) helped me overcome this fear by regularly checking my dipstick for testosterone levels. Come on, he would say, it’s fun, he would say, it won’t hurt you, he would say, don’t be a sissy, he would say. Jeff was to me what the serpent in the Garden of Eden was to Eve.

One hot July day, Dad loaded up the 55-gallon drums in the back of the pickup and hollered at us to jump in. Hot dang, it was time to go crawdaddin’ on Bird Creek! We never once thought of getting in the front, so we’d pile in the back and settle in for the ride. Only this time we had firecrackers and a punk. I have often wonder why firecracker lighters are called punks other than they are named after the idiots holding them.

We were forbidden to throw anything out while we were on Highway 54, but as soon as we turned onto the graveled road, every projectile we could scrape up started sailing. Only this time it wasn’t rocks, it was firecrackers. Dad did not have the same rule that Mom did about never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off. Dad intuitively knew we needed a fair amount of risk in our lives to make us wholesome adults.

After I grew up and had kids of my own, I waited until they got older before I trusted their capacity to reason with me. Little kids are not rational beings; they don’t understand cause-and-effect. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a child not to stick the fork in the electrical outlet, they won’t believe you until they fry themselves a couple of times.

We obviously lacked these reasoning skills or it would have occurred to us that, on a hot July day in Kansas, you don’t throw things with shooting sparks on dry grass. The pastures were as explosive as a Joe Pesci getting the wrong order at a McDonalds drive-thru.

We made it to Bird Creek, filled the drums up with water for our critters back home, then commenced to crawdaddin’. I was tempting a big ol‘ crawdad under a rock with a piece of bacon tied to a string when the big water truck pulled up. The driver jumped out and threw a hose in our creek to suck up water.

“Hey Bill!” my Dad said, “How you doing?”

“Hi Bob, just needing a little water. The pasture up the road is on fire.”

They chatted above the din of the engine sucking water out of precious honey-hole and totally ruined our crawdaddin’ for the day. We were not impressed. Bill finally topped of the huge tank on the back of the truck, ground a few gears and raced off to fight the fire.

“Hey boys,” Dad said, “Want to go fight a fire?”

Does a bear poop in the woods? What a silly question; of course we wanted to go fight a fire! Adventure! Intrigue! Danger! Romance! Okay, well, maybe not romance since we hadn’t hit puberty, but we instinctively knew that one day soon reciting stories of dangerous encounters would woo the ladies. One day, puberty would finally sit in and totally screw up our value system.

We jumped in the back of the pickup and puttered up the road to the fire. Several water trucks raced across the prairie shooting out plumes of water on the line of fire, neighbors came from miles around with grain shovels and gunny sacks, and the sheriff deputies cordoned off the road with lights flashing. 

The pasture belonged to Old Man Leonard who we feared about as much as we did the Russians (this was during the Cold War). Old Man Leonard lived in a haunted house that hadn’t been painted or had the windows washed since the Great Depression. Looking back, I often wonder where the fear came from because none of us ever had an encounter with him; it was more like a hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling. We’d see his skinny American Gothic body in bib-overalls carrying a shovel and we assumed it was to bury children. Remember that part I said about not reasoning with children? This is why.

We ripped of our shirts, dipped them in a water barrels and raced out to the pasture to fight the raging inferno. Now, in the springtime in the Flint Hills, the ranchers intentionally light pastures on fire at night when the wind is calm; it is a thing of beauty. But, during a hot summer day when the wind is blowing like the exhaust out of a jet engine, a pasture fire is something to fear. A summer pasture fire can move faster than paparazzi chasing George Clooney.

The fire was finally conquered and it was time to shake hands, swap exaggerated tales, compare this fire to the one back in ’53 that traveled 35 miles in two hours, and hand out awards to the bravest firefighters of the day.

We won the award for bravery in the face of grave danger. Sprite youth formerly despised by Old Man Leonard were suddenly thrust into great favor from pauper to prince. Former feelings of fear and hostility abated, peace offerings were extended, land was offered for our exploration, and iced tea passed out to thirsty heroes. It was a glorious day.

As we crawled in the back of the pickup enjoying a collective sense of pride hitherto unknown to our little tribe of miscreants, Dad leaned against the side of the truck and dropped the bomb; “You boys do realize, don’t you, that you’re the ones that set that pasture on fire?”

We waved at Old Man Leonard as we puttered off down the road with our soot-covered bodies being splashed with water sloshing out of the 55-gallon drums. We smiled like politicians but trembled in fear like feverish skunks. It’s a sick feeling to think you’re a hero only to find out you’re the criminal.

Mom was right; I was a dingbat. By the time the summer was over I managed to hang on to a firecracker too long. I retained all the digits in my right hand, but not without some serious blood blisters. After the firecracker detonated, I ran upstairs and laid in bed hoping I would die before Mom discovered me. She finally discovered me whimpering under the covers and assured me that my mangled fingers were not the punishment of God; they were the just rewards for being a dingbat.

You would have thought I would have learned my lesson. But I’ve managed to stick the fork in the electrical outlet a few more times since then. All of that experience added a certain gravitas when I relayed helpful information to my own children: never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off.

“Mater”: Photo is mine. Taken in Strong City, Kansas 

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