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.


In the hit movie Man of Steel, Superman, the last son of the planet Krypton, tells a U.S. Army general who questions his love of his adopted country, "I grew up in Kansas – you can't get more American than that."

And in many ways, you can't get more Kansas than Dodge City, the legendary Wild West town whose main street is named after its most famous resident, Wyatt Earp.

Robert Rebein's "personal history of Dodge City," Dragging Wyatt Earp explores the deep history of the place (the Spanish conquistador Coronado scoured the area in the 1540s looking for the Seven Cities of Gold and George Custer got his first taste of defeat in the Indian wars in the 1860s while leading cavalry stationed in nearby Ft. Riley). But Rebein also evocatively reconstructs what it was like growing up in Dodge in the 1970s and '80s as the farming and ranching economy soured. The result is a riveting meditation not just on the Old West versus the New West but on how to treat the past with reverence while refusing to become trapped by it. For most of us, that's easier said than done – and in the case of Dodge City, Kansas and many other isolated small towns still built on a 19th-century agricultural platform, it's especially difficult.

But not impossible. By the start of the 2000s, writes Rebein, "Dodge City was again an open town….The population had grown by a third, most of it made up of young men come north from Texas and Mexico to work in the newly built [beef-]packing plants. Like the cowboys of old, they are mercurial and often well armed. Roughly a million cattle a year are slaughtered at Dodge City. The Roundup Rodeo, which headlines the annual Dodge City Days celebration has grown from a small, local affair to one of the richest on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit. It is as if the Old West, that brief period in the town's storied past, has returned, big as life in the [21st century]."

The author of Hicks, Tribes, & Dirty Realists: American Fiction after Postmodernism (2001), Rebein is professor of English and creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). This interview was conducted by Nick Gillespie and took place over e-mail.

Reason: Dragging Wyatt Earp is, as you note in your subtitle, "a personal history of Dodge City," a town that exists only in myth for most Americans. This is the town where the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson earned their stripes as peacekeepers and Gunsmoke existed for 20 years. Dodge City's entire appeal is grounded in its Wild West past. Yet you write, "A New West has come to Old Dodge City. I think with a laugh, Am I the only one who likes this one better?" Explain briefly the main difference you see between the Old and the New West, the old and the new Dodge City.

Robert Rebein: In the Old West, pretty much everyone, Indians aside, was from somewhere else—the Midwest, the East, a South ravaged by the Civil War, and so on. It was a place where people went to seek a second or third chance at life. In the New West, it's different. You still have the newcomers, and they are still chasing that same old dream of a second or third chance, but you've also got this layer of people who were born and raised in the region and who think of themselves as "natives," which is a curious term when you think about it in the context of the region's history. 

When I write that "a New West has come to Old Dodge City," I am referring to this most recent wave of newcomers, most of whom are from Mexico and other parts of Central America, and the ways these newcomers are replicating patterns established in the Old West, where the whole idea was to get somewhere first and then make money off the people who came later. You know, Levi Strauss selling jeans to miners during the Gold Rush. Something very similar is happening in Dodge City even today. The people selling stuff to newly arrived immigrants today are the immigrants from 10 to 15 years ago, who have moved out of the beef-packing plants and have opened bars, restaurants, used car lots, and so on. I'm intrigued by this. I think it's interesting and ironic on all sorts of levels.

Of course, in the Old West, the cowboy was revered and mythologized (even as he was relieved of his wages by gamblers and prostitutes), while the Mexican beef-plant worker is largely invisible, especially to those who live outside the region.

Reason: Among its several meanings, your book's title evokes the pastime of bored teenagers with nothing to do but to drive up and down a town's main drag in cars or bikes (Wyatt Earp Boulevard in this case). This is reminiscent of scenes from movies and novels such as American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and The Last Picture Show. Now that small towns are connected to everywhere else via the Internet and cable TV and home entertainment, does that sort of public boredom exist anymore? Your account of the late 1970s and 1980s may have been the last moment before the great cosmopolitanizing (for lack of a better word) of the country.

Rebein: I think if you asked the teenagers of Dodge City if they were bored, their immediate answer would be, "Hell, yes, we're bored!" However, boredom takes different forms these days. One of the things I've come to realize by going places and reading from the book is that the 1950s and 1960s really were the Golden Age of "dragging Earp." In many ways, the version my classmates and I took part in during the 1980s was a weak imitation of a ritual that even then was passing away, and for the most part kids today don't "drag Earp" the way we did. On prom night, maybe, but not three nights a week all summer long the way we did.

But they're still small-town kids at the end of the day, and their boredom still manifests itself in small-town, as opposed to suburban or big-city, ways. Dragging a keg out to a dried-up lake. Driving two hours each way to watch a football game. Working a couple of different part-time jobs during the summer because "there's nothing better to do." 

I'm someone who loves the Internet, and I'm on it all the time whenever I'm in Dodge City visiting, but I would challenge the idea that it has somehow connected Dodge City to places like New York or Miami. I'd say the connection is theoretical, at best. It's one thing to watch shows set in a big city, it's another thing entirely to actually visit these places or, better yet, work up the nerve to move there. I say this even though leaving is something most Dodge City teens are still raised up to do. We have a saying there. You've got two choices: Grow roots or grow wings. Mostly Dodge City is in the wings-growing business.

Reason: You write that Dodge City has always been about commerce. Cattle and crops in the old days, as well as human flesh and booze. Spaniards wandering the area looking for gold. Farming, ranching—typically done under less than ideal circumstances. Talk a little bit about how the economic basis of the city—and of Kansas—informs the character of the place. And how (or whether) changes to the economy have changed that character.

Rebein: It's funny. When most people think of Kansas, they think of it as being a middling place—middle America, salt of the earth, that sort of thing. But in reality it's a land of extremes. Drought, 50 mile-an-hour winds, 117 degrees in July, 20 below zero in January, etc. That's the reality of the place. It's true that in between these extremes, you will encounter some spectacular weather—pure, bracing air, abundant sunshine. George Custer got a whiff of that and fell in love, but later he encountered the extremes as well.

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?

Rebein: You won't find much nostalgia for the "good old days" of farming and ranching in places like Dodge City. That's more of a Midwest phenomenon. Take my father. He inherited half of 160 acres, including the house he grew up in. By the time he was [in his mid-40s], he had run that up to more than 4,000 acres. The man had seven sons, but he didn't think any of us should be farmers. Why?  Because it was hard, for one. But also I think he understood that we needed to find our own way in life, just as he had had to find his way. He didn't like the idea of giving us that life or laying it all out before us. As a result, he's the last of a breed—at least in our family.

Still, I think there's a loss of sorts here. I'm not very interested in politics. What interests me is experience. And what I do find a little disturbing about America today is the way that so many people are so ignorant about really basic experiences like growing crops or slaughtering animals for food or fixing a car. 

However, this lack of experience does not equate to a lack of opinions. In one of the essays in my book, "Feedlot Cowboy," I spend a day in a big commercial feedyard where cattle are being fattened for slaughter. A feedlot is a really interesting place full of all kinds of interesting detail. To understand what's going on there, you really do have to go there and experience it for yourself. Now that's not something most people would want to do, and I understand that. What I don't understand is how someone who has not done that can have so many opinions about things like animal welfare or environmental issues or illegal immigration from Mexico. All of those things are in play in a feedlot in ways that are not predictable or immediately apparent, but because of the way we live now, most people will never get that. They'll still have their opinions about it all, of course, but those opinions will be based, at best, on arguments, not experience.

Reason: You end your book with an account of a trip to the Boot Hill Casino and Resort, a low-stakes gambling operation that seeks to trade on your hometown's storied past. It's a ridiculous place in most ways, though you treat the trip with a mixture of warm feelings and get-a-load-of-this disbelief. Is the casino a metaphor for a town, a state—a country?—whose primary sense of identity comes from the past and that seems incapable of moving fully into the future?

Rebein: The term is "Old West tourism," and it's been a part of Dodge City's economic playbook almost from the beginning. It's hilarious to witness, but it's also a smart move in many ways. 

If you look at a map, you'll see that Dodge City is nowhere near a big city or an Interstate highway. To visit the place at all requires a decision of greater magnitude than a decision to visit, say, Chicago. If you're a business person, you ask yourself, "Why would anyone drive more than a hundred miles come here?" and the answer that comes to you is almost always some version of "To relive the legend of the West." Given that reality, your next question will always be, "How can we get these people to (a) stay awhile, and (b) spend the maximum amount of money before they leave?" Gambling is a great answer to both of those questions, so it's not surprising the town has decided to go in that direction.

What is surprising is the other moves the town has made. For example, inviting a semi-pro hockey team to play its home games in the town's newly built Special Event Center. Hockey? In Dodge City?  It's a little crazy, when you think about it, but I guess there are limits to how far you can go with all the Old West stuff. At the end of the day, if you build a sports arena you've got to have a team, and if the only team going is a hockey team, I guess that's what you're going to have. 

But you know, it's things like that that keep the place fresh for me. Dodge City is very aware of its Old West past, but it's got a present to worry about as well, and I kind of like that in seeking that present Dodge City is still capable of a surprise or two.