• U.S.

The Nation: A Long Ride with the American Caravan

5 minute read
Hugh Sidey

Two hundred years has been so little, yet brought so much.

One day last October I walked out over a patch of prairie with my father, who was 80 years old. It was undulating land between the great rivers Mississippi and Missouri. We looked for an old friend of his—a red-tailed hawk with one of his tail feathers missing. He had perched for years as a sentinel on a tree on a far hill, crying his protest to intruders who entered his domain. Gone, mused my father, who had once carried me on his shoulders through these fields (now he needed my hand). Another friend swallowed by time, my father said. But the old rascal’s progeny were all about, he laughed. They could claim the field mice and the unsuspecting young bull snakes. They would still soar on the thermals beneath those towering cumulus clouds and watch over this land as they had done for centuries.

How much had passed, he said, so quickly. This was the land that George Washington dreamed about, that Lewis and Clark had seen in 1804 and called “the most butifull Plains,” that Thomas Jefferson had purchased for $15 million from Napoleon, that Chief Black Hawk had warred over. The Mormons went west that way, just a few miles south, their cuts in the sides of the hills for their carts still visible. Lawyer Abraham Lincoln had stood on a bluff just 100 miles west and picked the spot where he would start the Union Pacific Railroad three years later from the White House, the steel ribbon that would finally bind the Union.

They spirited slaves up that way on a branch of the Underground Railroad out of Missouri, secreting them in the old limestone farmhouses that had grown up beside the creeks that flooded in the spring and ran dry in the fall. Henry Wallace, of the family that helped revolutionize agriculture, was born down the road and went on to be Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture. Glenn Martin lay on the nearby hills and watched the birds glide and dive, then went off to build his famous airplanes. Jesse James staged his first successful train robbery on the railroad tracks a short way up the line.

That was all before my father’s time.

But the stories were still fresh when he was growing up. His grandfather had come when the Indians had fled and the towns were rising, a Canadian immigrant in the land ocean. He rode the rails as far as he could, climbed off and asked about the opportunities for a cobbler. Somebody said there was a new town off about 20 miles, called Greenfield, Iowa. No train there. No stage. He walked, liked the place, sent for his family of six back in Ontario. My father’s father, being the eldest son, shepherded them all safely to their new home. The family started a newspaper, helped build the town. My father recalled as a young boy being loaded onto the handlebars of his father’s bicycle and taken to the edge of town where they stalked prairie chickens, shot them and brought them home for dinner. They would ride back with the evening breeze fresh in their nostrils and the rolling land washed in the evening sun as far as the eye could see.

My father slept on the piles of newsprint on press night because the entire family worked until dawn. When the steam engine broke down, he was sent off to find the town’s muscle man, who would turn the presses with his immense arms. My father gathered the news at the train depot from salesmen and Chautauqua performers. Sometimes he went by buggy to nearby towns, a full day’s journey. He was touched by the exuberance of Teddy Roosevelt, went off to France with the Fifth Division to fight for Woodrow Wilson, came back to make his fortune and lost most of it under Herbert Hoover in Florida real estate and Oklahoma oil wells that never came in. He took guidance from the writings of William Allen White and chortled over the ribald humor of H.L. Mencken that somehow found its way that far along. My father lined up to get what money he could the day the banks collapsed, hunkered down to survive the Depression, the dust storms and the grasshoppers. He photographed almost every boy who left his county for World War II, woke me out of a deep sleep so that I could come to the radio to hear Ike sending the troops to Normandy. He shook hands with Harry Truman up at the National Plowing Match, the first President he saw in the flesh. A good one, he insisted.

A few years later he went into the Oval Office at the White House and saw where Lyndon Johnson presided. Viet Nam and Watergate came his way through electronics, but more often by then he was back on his bit of prairie, striding across the hills as he had as a boy, sampling the wild strawberries and watching the rain form on the horizon, listening for the call of the red-tailed hawk and thinking how close he had come to seeing the land, unfenced, with wild flowers and buffalo.

He died in May. He just missed the tall ships in the Hudson and the 33 tons of fireworks on Washington’s mall and the visit of Queen Elizabeth with her Black Watch Pipers. But that did not matter much. Like millions of others in the American caravan, he had held a long, quiet celebration in this incredible land. He had felt the breath of the first century and lived most of the second century.

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