Why Superman and Wyatt Earp Left Kansas But Still Loved the Place

Q&A with Robert Rebein, author of Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City.

(Page 2 of 3)

I mention all this because in a place like southwestern Kansas, the weather is a big part of the economic equation. If it doesn’t rain, which is most of the time, nothing grows. If nothing grows, there’s no cheap grain to feed cattle, and the price of beef skyrockets. Maybe that’s good for ranchers in the short term, but it’s bad for them in the long term. It rains again, and everyone plants a ton of grain, and prices fall, and you’ve got the opposite problem.

All this has a long, long history. What’s changed recently is that you’ve got all of this new technology coming in that has created a mini-energy boom. Massive wind farms, new ways of getting at the oil and natural gas, and so on. These things are changing the economic situation at the edges, but not in the middle. In the middle, it’s still the same old rain dance.

Reason: Your memoir eschews trauma for depictions of work. Your old man was a farmer and a rancher and an auto-shop guy. Your mother worked outside the home despite having seven boys to feed, clothe, and look after. How does your family's experience with long hours as a given reflect the values of the West? Or does it not really reflect anything larger than your family's values?

Rebein: When I started writing the book, I asked myself, “Can you have a memoir about a happy childhood?” As you suggest, a lot of memoirs catalogue trauma, and even those that don’t deal in trauma sensationalize divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and so on. I’m not saying that the authors of these “misery memoirs” are lying about their experiences, because for the most part I don't think they are. A lot of these childhoods really were terrible, and so when the authors who lived those lives sit down to write, that’s what they’ve got to deal with. That’s their material. 

But in my case it’s different. I recognized early on that my childhood, when I looked back on it, offered a whole different menu of themes. My parents have been married for more than a half-century. For the most part, they’ve lived very intense, fulfilling lives. As a child, I got to be part of this big family in which independence was stressed and everyone worked and when we sat down at the dinner table everyone got to talk. There was none of this “Shut up and eat your food.” 

It was fun. One of my brothers would tell a story about some movie he had just seen, and the rest of us would asked him questions about it, and that would lead to another brother telling a story about something that had happened to him that day and how he had responded, and then my parents would jump in and ask, in an almost detached, theoretical way, why he had responded that way and not this way. The basic idea we operated by was that the world was an interesting place and people were absolute freaks, you never knew what they might do, and to fail to note all this and learn from it was to fail to live your life to the fullest.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy. I remember times when my dad had millions out at the bank in loans and the weather was not cooperating and it looked like we might lose it all. As a very young kid, I got to see firsthand how he responded to that. I got to watch him and ask, “What’s he gonna do now? Is he gonna crack? Are we gonna make it through this rough patch?” I still think about those times. I still remember the things we did, things that were said. I remember once, a terrible situation, wheat harvest going badly, equipment broken down, storm rolling in. I was maybe 12 years old, beside myself with worry, and I asked my dad, “What are we gonna do?” And he just turned to me and gave me this weirdly calm look, almost laughing, and says, “We’re gonna try, that’s what. And if that doesn’t work, we’re gonna try harder. We’re gonna get up earlier and go to bed later.”  And when he sees that I'm not buying any of this he just shrugs and gives me this crazy one-liner that I will never forget. “There are very few problems in this life,” he says, “that cannot be fixed by getting up earlier in the morning.”

Now, you and I know that that’s bullshit on some level. If you’ve got paranoid schizophrenia, getting up earlier in the morning is not going to help you. Having said that, there’s no denying that having been exposed as a child to that attitude is a very powerful thing. One of the things I wanted to do in writing the book was to honor that kind of upbringing in an honest way, full of realism and devoid of nostalgia and sentimentality.

Was my childhood unique that way? I don’t think so. I think a lot of people, particularly in places like Dodge City, experience these things.

Reason: Kansas is routinely ranked as one of the best places to start a business. In 2012, it ranked 15th in CNBC's list of business-friendly places and 13th on Forbes' similar list. It's affordable, has generally low taxes, good schools, and the like. Yet it ranks in the bottom half of the states for population growth. You yourself have moved out of the place and betray no strong interest in moving back. What explains the state's inability to draw and keep people?

Rebein: If you want to understand Kansas you need to read a book by Timothy Eagan called The Worst Hard Time. It’s about the Dust Bowl, and much of the book takes place in Kansas during a time when the state was cycling out of one of its recurrent boom phases and headed for the disaster of the 1930s. 

The key to the book is dramatic irony. We all know what’s going to happen, but the people being depicted in the book do not. They’re getting rich on wheat, and then the price falls, and so what do they do? Plant more wheat. And then the price falls even farther, so they plant still more wheat. It’s a basic human response, but it’s chilling to follow when you know what’s coming. Then the rain stops and the wind starts blowing, and there’s nothing at all covering the ground, not a tree or a blade of grass, and it all starts blowing away. The people go broke. They pack up and leave. Towns that ballooned from 50 people to 5,000 in a decade witness the opposite trend, and most of those towns have not recovered even to this day. For town after town, the absolute zenith of population growth was 1929 or 1930.

There’s a lingering memory of all that, even today. While bigger towns like Overland Park, Wichita, and Lawrence, as well as the beefpacking towns farther west like Liberal, Garden City, and Dodge City, are thriving, the old farm-based towns have never matched what they were in 1929 or 1930, and the smart money says they never will.

I think a couple of lessons have come out of all this. The first lesson is that Kansas as a place is never going to be Texas or Colorado or Ohio. It’s too dry, too far from everything else, and the businesses that do best there—farming, ranching, energy exploration and production—do not require a lot of people. The other lesson is that if you do want to draw people and businesses to the state, you better try. You better understand that the lingering image of your state is a mix of the Dust Bowl, Superman, and The Wizard of Oz. If you want businesses to buy into you despite all that, you better put your best foot forward.

Reason: Fewer and fewer Americans are engaged in the actual cultivation and production of our food, whether vegetable or animal. According to the Farm Bureau, farm and ranch families comprise just 2 percent of U.S. households and only about 15 percent of the workforce is involved in growing, processing, or selling food. Is it a problem that we've moved away from direct involvement in the creating of the stuff we eat? Or, given the ardor required, is it cause for celebration?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Why does the wind blow so hard in eastern Colorado?

    Kansas sucks.

  • John||

    No. It is because Missouri sucks and Colorado blows so much. There is so much hot air coming out of Colorado about the mountains and such, and so much sucking going on in Missouri, Kansas doesn't have a chance.

  • sarcasmic||

    “I grew up in Kansas - you can’t get more American than that.”

    So some states are more American than others?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yeah, sure. Like Kirk is from Iowa. Farm country, you know, America+.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Well, yeah, Hawaii isn't exactly in the Americas Geographically speaking.

  • John||

    There was a whole world that grew up in the early 20th century of really prosperous farmers and ranchers and communities. That world is gone. It didn't go away because of the dust bowl. It went away because of the advent of larger, more efficient and more expensive equipment. IN the 1950s you could have a 2000 acre ranch/farm out there and do really well if you were smart, didn't spend too much in the good years, and loved the work so much you were willing to do it every day for your whole life. Now, a place that small could never justify the cost of the equipment. Only an operation of tens of thousands of acres can make any money and it won't need many people to run it. So there just isn't much of a reason for people to live out there. The only thing that has kept the population from really going south is that the economics also drove the meat packing plants out of Kansas City and Chicago and into the small towns where the cattle are.

  • sarcasmic||

    That's why we have farm subsidies and ethanol mandates.

  • B.P.||

    Dude, set up your 2000 acres within striking distance of a city and partner with a snooty farm-to-table restaurant. That way, "Locavore 21" can trumpet "organic, locally raised beets/quinoa/grass-fed, free range sasquatch grown on John's Farm" on its menu, and a herd of the smart set can feed their egos on eye-dropper portions of high-priced gruel before stopping at KFC on the way home.

    /pessimism

  • kinnath||

    Kansas is one of the only places on Earth that makes Iowa look exciting.

  • SIV||

    the great cosmopolitanizing (for lack of a better word) of the country

    The whole nefarious plot was sketched out on a cocktail napkin.

  • LibertyMark||

    //defensive_sensitivity_start

    I grew up in Iowa, and one side of my family comes from wheat farmers in central Kansas. My mom was actually born in the house on the original homestead. Now I live in the suburbs of Houston.

    Every time there is an article about Kansas, or Iowa, or similar places, in about any publication, the comments are filled with condescension and insults. Many of the people making the comments probably live in in big cities and think of themselves as very sophisticated and cosmopolitan. However, I suspect that the vast majority of them have never been to the places they're dissing, and have no idea how things are there. They're just as closed off and isolated in their place as they think the people they're insulting are.

    The suburbs of Houston really have no more to offer than the places I grew up in.

    Just because it's not the lifestyle hipsters think is cool does not mean that they are not good places with good people.

    //defensive_sensitivity_end

  • John||

    I agree with you Mark. Fuck the hipsters. And there is nothing special about a city. One of the best lines I have ever read came from PJ O'Rourke I think but I can't quite remember. Anyway some smugh asshole on TV had said something to the effect of "what do the people Iowa know" and the response was "I don't know, just how to fly planes, build buildings, do brain surgery, and about a million other things douche bags like you will never know how to."

    I thought it was pretty good.

  • MattJ||

    I grew up in Kansas. I still like going back, though I wouldn't if I didn't have family there.

    Nice place to live / wouldn't want to visit, I guess.

    Most animosity I've encountered towards Kansas from non-Kansans centers around people who have driven across it, East-to-West. That's a miserable drive.

    Most people who have to do it drive on I-70. As bad as that is, it's MUCH nicer than driving across it in the south part of the state.

    My girlfriend still thinks Dorothy/Toto jokes are funny after the 200th time.

  • Robert||

    Is that where the expression "get out of Dodge" comes from? I'd like to know more about its deriv'n.

  • Copernicus||

    The expression is "get out of THE Dodge" and it is properly followed by "Fuck you that's why".

  • Curtisls87||

    I'm another who grew up in Kansas, and still have relatives, there. There are no family farms left, though, as older generations have waned away and agribusiness has stepped in to replace them. I still enjoy going back.
    I've lived in California, now, for almost 20 years. I've also lived in Florida, Texas, and for a brief period, Munich. I've traveled the world, and this country, as well. My experience is much the same as others posting here. It amazes me how provincial people can be in places where they believe they are sophisticated. Frankly, I'd take an average Kansan over an average Californian from the Bay Area, where I now live. The Kansan will most likely be more considerate.

  • Objective Historian||

    Haven't read this yet; you're great on TV, Mr. Gillespie. You were awesome on one of the Maher shows.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement