We buried my grandfather two weeks ago on a hill in southwest Kansas.
The graveyard sits just above a wheat field my family has farmed for three generations. The headstones are etched with names familiar from my childhood — Ollum, Tedford, Beard; some I associate with faces, some only with stories I heard from grandparents, aunts, and uncles guffawing over memories around a kitchen table.
For 20 summers my family vacationed out here at harvest time, making a two-day trek west from Chicago to Dodge City. We would split our time between my grandparents’ house in Dodge and the family farm outside Minneola, a town of 700 that lay half-an-hour south. For my dad, the wheat harvest provided a respite from his medical practice and a return to his roots; for us children — the city cousins visiting the country cousins — driving three-wheelers, swimming in empty silo troughs, and shooting B.B.-guns (and later .22s) was our childhood delight, the high point of the year.
The best trips to the farm were those that fell around July 4. On those drives we would stop at roadside fireworks stands and buy bottle rockets and sparklers for our own homemade festivities out on the farm. (This was much more interesting than seeing Henry Hyde and Jim Thompson march in the parade back home in DuPage County.)
We spent the fall of 1979 out on these Kansas plains, transitioning back to the States after two years in Taiwan. I was a second-grader in a Dodge City elementary school that semester. Every morning Miss Malo appointed a student to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance (as well as the Lord’s Prayer). (Miss Malo, incidentally, also swatted children when necessary. The long arm of the law is well known around Boot Hill.)
Patriotism is stylish now in New York and Washington, but in some places in America it continues as it always has, mundane and unglamorous. My father tells of how, plowing in the days before air-conditioned tractor cabs, he would hum “America the Beautiful” to give himself the chills. This is the land of amber waves of grain; it gives one a sense of belonging to have one’s life rooted in this particular soil.
My grandfather was laid to rest in the earth he had tilled for most of his life. At the end of his funeral, the local American Legion chapter presented a flag in honor of his naval service half a century ago. The presentation was a far cry from the color-guard precision we see in Washington. Eight or so American Legion members filed in at the close of the service, some in jeans with big brass belt buckles and ties that were too short. “Taps” was sounded from a hand-held tape recorder. But their salutes were steady, and their faces were somber and earnest. After the service, they shook every hand as family and friends departed the funeral home.
After leaving the Navy, my grandfather, known as “L.T.,” farmed 2000 acres outside Minneola, the land his father had farmed before him. After about 30 years, he handed the farm over to a daughter and son-in-law and concentrated on raising and selling cattle. The hard times of dependence on the weather were over, and money became more abundant. But he still lived like a miser, and my grandmother may never have bought light bulbs without a coupon.
Their one indulgence was travel, and before their deaths, they had visited four continents. My first trip to Europe, when I was 12, was with my grandparents and a widowed friend of theirs. It was 1984, and we went behind the Iron Curtain to visit Prague and Budapest, with Vienna in between. My grandfather wore his boots and cowboy hat all through Eastern Europe, and he took more interest in what meat the Czechoslovakian cooks served for dinner than in the history of the statues along Charles Bridge. He was most fascinated by how things compared with life as he knew it — the idiosyncrasies of place and personality. One foot of his compass was always planted, firmly, at home.
That trip opened up a whole world to me; I have lived in Europe twice since then. But the wanderlust always leads back home to the U.S.A., and no place is more like home than this southwest Kansas corner of the heartland. My grandfather died a wealthy man, but my greatest inheritance from him is the legacy of these golden plains and their big horizon.
— Jennifer A. Marshall is a policy analyst and government-relations liaison Empower America.