My Canvass of Kansas

When my sister married and moved from Indianapolis to Los Angeles, Dad, Mom, and I drove out to visit the next summer. I was seventeen but had never been west of Chicago. I was really excited about this road trip. Crossing the Mississippi River was a big exclamation mark for me, as was Missouri with the Saint Louis Arch, which had just been completed the year before in 1965. More exclamation marks for the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and Kansas City barbecue with its thick sweet sauce.

The excitement petered out once we crossed into Kansas. We’d already driven 500 miles and had a daunting 1700 miles to go, more than 400 of them in Kansas — which is as flat as a pancake and even celebrates this fact with its Liberal, Kansas Pancake Run each year. I was not into pancakes back then, but I was a U.S. geography nerd and begged Dad to go quite a bit out of our way to visit the geographical center of the contiguous United States at Lebanon, Kansas. 

Once there, I had to admit I didn’t feel any more central to our country than I did back home in Indiana. The sad, dinky sign marking the spot didn’t help, nor did the hot dog stand plunked down there with its “Eat A Hot Dog In The Exact Middle of the United States!” sign. We did, and as Dad pointed out between bites, the $1 price was more than twice what a hot dog cost at the Howard Johnson’s at home. 

But it turned out that only fourteen miles from this dud attraction was the cabin where Home On The Range, Kansas’ state song, was written in 1872. After more begging, off we went. The author of this classic, we discovered, was Dr. Brewster H. Higley, a former Hoosier, who was an otolaryngologist! Who knew that in 1872 they had such specialist physicians on the Kansas range? He must have carried his medical paraphernalia in his saddlebags. 

 But I stray from my next subject, the lyrics of Home On The Range:

 Home, home on the range,

 Where the deer and the antelope play, 

 Where seldom is heard a discouraging word 

 And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Is it just me, or do you also find this one of the most peculiar ballads ever written? Let’s face it — this song is hardly a ringing endorsement for a home on the range. The opening two lines sound pleasant enough, inviting us to live among frolicking, Bambi-esque creatures. But the accolades abruptly stop after line two. 

Could Dr. Higley not have drummed up more positive Range Propaganda than by mentioning the possibility of discouraging curse words flying forth on that wide open plain? 

And exactly what is it with that concluding phrase “the skies are not cloudy all day”? I think he was just trying to sugarcoat the ugly truth that on the cloudless, treeless, flat ranges of Kansas, you’ll be sweltering all day in the hot sun. He’s talking major drought. You can’t fool us, Dr. Higley.

What we have here is the art of the backhand compliment — the equivalent of saying “Well, for a really fat guy, he doesn’t sweat all that much” or “Your new haircut at least makes that nose of yours look smaller.” 

Who can blame the good doctor for not being ebullient about his new home on the range? We learned from the National Park ranger at Dr. Higley’s cabin that the only reason he had fled to Kansas in the first place was because he was trying to escape his fourth unsuccessful marriage. He entered his fifth marriage one month later And he hadn’t even turned fifty yet. Here was a doctor AND poet who must have known quite a few discouraging words from any number of unsuitable wives back East. 

If I might cast one more aspersion on his lyrics, I am now thinking that perhaps Dr. H. discovered that he was one rhythmic beat short in his opening line, and after trying in vain to fix the issue using poetic vocabulary, he took a cheap shortcut by simply repeating his opening word. I mean, I doubt he ever asked any of his many exes or future brides to visit him at his “home, home on the range.”  

Do I feel some of you thinking “Elliot, don’t you have anything better to do than minutely explicate a simple kiddie song?” Hey, it’s my essay, and, besides, I swear you’ll never hear this famous ditty again without thinking of little ol’ me. 

I admit to feeling foolish on that trip, insisting on leaving the interstate twice to follow slow roads to unattractive attractions. I was clearly no roads scholar. As we pulled out of the Higley log cabin parking lot, there was a billboard proclaiming: VISIT CAWKER CITY, KANSAS, JUST 40 MINUTES SOUTH! HOME OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST BALL OF TWINE! 

“Don’t even think about it!” my dad barked at me from the front seat. 

  

Elliot writes:

 Today is my Trombones birthday—yep, I am 76, born 4-8-1948. I am  not feeling too old, but I know a way to feel younger. If any of you are eighty-five or older, let me know. Whoever is our oldest reader will get a fine gift. This is so like me — giving others a gift on my birthday. Yes, readers, I am just too good to be true.

Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here


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