It is probably not too far off the mark to estimate over half the drivers now navigating the nation’s ribbons of concrete were born since the Federal Interstate system supplanted State and US highways.
When the Roman Empire built a road they used the shortest distance between two points. If a hill or mountain was in the way they crested it or tunneled through it. If a gulch was in the way they filled it in or bridged it. Eisenhower’s Interstates were less severe—using gentle curves to dispel the perception of interminable distances—but they, too, cut through the rural landscapes inconsiderate of that landscape’s history or geography.
The old state and US highway system was more meandering, following the natural contours of the earth, running parallel to waterways or mountains, often retracing trails first cut by early trappers or explorers or Native Americans. Rather than bypass towns these highways decreased their speed limits, donned new names—often to Main Street—and passed straight through, linking the labeled points on maps to each other like a geographic connect-the-dots puzzle. The Mother Road—old Route 66—was one of these highways. Embarking from Chicago, heading southeast to Oklahoma, then cutting east to California, the highway once threw a lifeline to Okies and others fleeing the Grapes of Wrath.
Route 66 was sometimes called the Main Street of America. Many of the towns it traversed carried echoes of the ones ahead and behind along the route. It wasn’t so much that the stores had the homogenous appearance as the plethora of commercial malls that sprang up coast-to-coast in the late 1970s and 80s. Some department stores, for instance, did take advantage of the artery to open familiar franchises for catering to travelers. But more superficially, these towns had developed first around railroads, whose tracks and entrepreneurs carried a certain functional design with them, spreading a patchwork of closely-spaced, two-story buildings across the landscape. It was as if a template mass-produced tiny villages, distinguishable only in the details.
The highway wended about a dozen miles through the state of Kansas. It crossed from Missouri, just west of Joplin, into the mining town of Galena, spanned the Spring River near the Empire District Electric plant over a Marsh Rainbow Arch bridge and passed through Riverton. A small and unincorporated town clustered around a flashing light that marked where US 69 cut northward, if you blinked your eyes, people said, you would miss it.
West of Rivertown another Rainbow Arch bridge crossed Brush Creek, the road turned south and passed through Baxter Springs—First Cowtown in Kansas–before disappearing into Oklahoma.
Riverton was a homey little hamlet. Other than a filling station and an ice cream stand there was no retail to speak of in the town. Folks drove to Baxter or Joplin to do their shopping. Many of the houses sat at a comfortable distance from their neighbors, often fronting several acres of pasture or farmland. At night there were no streetlights to dim the starlight and throughout the nocturne low-frequency diesel hums were buoys to the comforting surf of big rigs hauling trailers packed with resources or merchandise over highways 66 and 69.
Though there was a baseball diamond for Little League, the children in town did not really live nearby each other to organize pick-up games, or even Tag or Kick-the-Can. For most of the year school provided ample opportunity for socialization. But before they got a driver’s license, when groups of youth wanted to get together during summers, it involved at least one adult or older sibling for transportation.
To alleviate this isolation, Pastor Jones and his wife treated a group of the church children to a picnic at the Schemerhorn Park one afternoon.
At the turn of the 20th Century, mining concerns were making mountains of money in this region of Cherokee County, Kansas. At one point the town of Galena had over thirty thousand miners extracting the minerals beneath the ground. One man who profited enormously from the mining was Edgar Backus Schermerhorn. In 1922 Schermerhorn donated land on Shoal Creek, including a cave stretching nearly a quarter mile beneath the surface, for a public park. The WPA built much of the park in the 1930s & 40s.
Today Schemerhorn Park is a nature preserve. The cave, considered the most biologically diverse in Kansas, is home to several endangered species, including at least four different salamander species. Jesse James is reputed to have taken refuge there at one time, perhaps after he and Cole Younger allegedly robbed the Crowell Bank. The park has a viewing platform for the cave, a nature center, picnic tables, and a playground.
On the day Pastor & Mrs. Jones brought the group of late-elementary aged boys and girls to picnic, the girls ran about picking wild flowers as the boys swarmed from the cars like so many clowns. The boys ran over to the edge of Shoal Creek, finding skimming stones and wandering toward some bridge trestles. These supported the road on which they had come as it crossed the creek. The water was low. The could see a bed of rounded stones from the shoreline to the water’s edge.
“Hey, look!” one of the boys cried.
The boys had came across a ragged man, snoring on the ground in the shade of the bridge passing overhead. Their grandparents might have called him a hobo. Today people would say he was homeless or, if this were an urban area, a street person. At the time of this story people just called him a bum.
Or a drunk.
The boys could smell the strong aroma of alcohol. Being Southern Baptist, most of them had heard of the evils of drink. A half-emptied bottle of golden-brown liquid lay beside the man—as senseless as he, himself, was.
One of the boys crept toward the prostrate figure, snatched the bottle, and ran back to his fellows. They walked to the waterside. The boy clutching the bottle lobbed it in an arc toward the water. It shattered with a crash! The drunk never stirred.
The boys scattered. They reassembled near the picnic table where Pastor Jones was unpacking a Thermos cooler packed with soda pop and fried chicken, potato salad and watermelon. The girls gathered around with their bouquets of flowers and weeds. The boys started teasing them.
At Pastor Jones’ word, everyone sat around a couple tables. The preacher said grace, thanking God for the food provided and the beautiful day and the children and their families and on and on until even some of the girls began to roll their eyes. The food was delicious and all the children were hungry. They were eating and talking and laughing and having a grand time until one of the girls called Pastor Jones’ attention to the gaunt and dirty figure staggering out from beneath the bridge.
The preacher, in the midst of distributing melon, looked at the newcomer, then subtly shifted himself to a position between the wretch and his charges. “Don’t stare, children.”
The man was squawking something. They could not understand, at first. Then the words came wafting in from beyond: “Who’s got it!?! Is it you?” He shambled a few more steps. The girls looked away, embarrassed, or maybe afraid. The boys exchanged furtive glances.
“Them little son-of-a-bitches!” The gaunt man croaked, raising a crooked finger to point their direction, clutching the loose waistband of his ragged trousers in the other to hold them up. He was squinting in the bright sun.
“Don’t pay him any mind,” Pastor Jones told the children, sotto voce.
“Son-of-a-bitches stole my bottle! Give it back!”
The only bottles on the picnic table were soft drinks. With a look of desperate futility, the ragged man turned and slunk back toward the bridge.
As the children finished their lunch and the adults put away the cooler a pathetic wail rose from the gloom beneath the trestle.
It pierced my gut, like a twisting knife.
I have never told that story to anyone.
I never discussed it with any of the other boys. Whether any of them discussed it among themselves, I don’t know. I only lived about a year in Riverton, and only visited my grandparents who lived there during the summers thereafter. I certainly never mentioned the incident to any of the girls, or Pastor Jones.
I know there are some Baptists—my grandfather among them—with an almost pathological aversion to alcohol. I also know the joke about Baptists not recognizing one another in liquor stores. My sense is the boy who broke the bottle was not some Carry Nation crusader, doing so in the name of Temperance.
Even as a boy I recognized the cruelty inherent in his mischief.
And I suspect—if we can produce children so cruel—there is not much hope for our species. Especially if the rest of us just sit in silence and exchange furtive glances.