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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?