Out across Kansas that summer, the wheat fields and long grasses of the prairie were waving and undulating in the wind and the whole of the world looked like some quivering live thing beneath our wheels. The little car I was driving had been purchased with a $400 dollar loan offered by the radio station’s general manager because he was embarrassed that his morning announcer was running around town in an old Ford with a loud muffler, multiple dents, and paint faded flat and peeling by years in the sun. We were excited, though, to be making our start in life together in a one bedroom adobe on the High Plains of Eastern Colorado. I sometimes glanced at my bride’s red hair bouncing on the air rushing through her open passenger window and I listened to the excited way she talked about making friends and finding a job in our new hometown and I was aware enough to think about how lucky we were to be young and healthy and in love and filled with optimism.
The morning after our wedding, though, we began with a bumpy patch on the road to Mary Lou’s family farm. About a hundred yards from the front porch, the Opal Kadett station wagon issued a loud thunking noise and the engine stopped producing power. There was enough momentum to slip it into neutral and coast into the farmyard where her brother-in-law was standing with his hands on his hips and a sweaty summer cowlick stuck to his forehead. Before I even opened the door to get out I was wondering how we would make it back to Colorado in time for me to meet my obligation to be on the air by Tuesday, which was just 48 hours off.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said.
“Oh, I do.” Ronnie was a mechanic whose mind saw every device as an assembly of pieces and he knew intuitively what each part did and how they were all connected and interdependent.
“What is it?”
“You threw a rod,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that car isn’t going anywhere until it gets a completely new engine.”
“I guess we’ve got to get on a bus or fly back to Colorado then,” I said. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“Well, hang on. How much money did you get from your wedding gifts?”
“We counted it at the hotel last night. I think it was exactly $600.”
“Okay, well, if you wanna give me half of it, I’ll go to the junkyard in Saginaw and see if I can find an Opal engine and I’ll take it out and come back and put it in this one.” He made it sound like going to the corner store to pick up bread and milk.
“You can do that?”
“Sure, but it will take all night if you are going to be in Colorado on Tuesday so I better get going.”
I went inside to be with the little-red-haired girl while gifts were being opened and about three hours later we heard chains rattling and tires on the gravel drive. Ronnie had hung a block and tackle from a broad limb on the walnut tree and was using it to raise a four-cylinder engine from the bed of his pickup to a plywood pad. His hands were already black with dirt and grease as he reached for his tool box and walked toward the Opal, popped the hood release, leaned over a fender, and began unscrewing bolts and disconnecting wires.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Probably not. But stay close in case I need you to get me something.”
“Okay. I’ll be on the porch.”
The big yard light up a utility pole came on just after dusk and gave Ronnie enough illumination to work. Mary Lou and her siblings came out and watched and talked and went back inside and I fell asleep on the porch swing. Fireflies rose up out of the dewy Michigan lawn and I had the fading notion Ronnie was performing a kind of magic in their dancing and flickering presence. When I awoke to the sound of a revving engine, I was as amazed as if he had turned water into wine. We stood and gazed under the lifted hood and watched the purring engine. I did not know how to adequately express my wonderment.
“Well, you two better start packing,” Ronnie said. “We need to leave this morning to get you back on time.”
“Yeah, I’m going to hook up my camper trailer and Bonnie and the boys and I will follow you to Colorado. I want to make sure my handiwork gets you back safely.”
“You don’t have to do that, Ronnie.”
“I know, but we’ll make a little vacation out of it, go up to the Rockies, too.”
They were behind us on the Interstate as we approached the two exit town of Burlington, government seat of Kit Carson County, and center of agricultural business in the region. I was never able to find any history of the old nineteenth century frontiersman, fur trapper, and wilderness guide, having spent time in the locale that bore his name but there are dozens of places and structures and institutions that honor him throughout the American West. We were looking at endless beet fields marked by visually hypnotic turn rows stretched to the unbroken horizon in all directions. I pointed out the radio station tower next to the studio where I worked, the tallest structure before Denver, standing next to farm machinery tending the sugar beet crop south of the highway.
When we opened the door to the one bedroom adobe apartment I had rented we were met by a cloud of moths. In the five days I had been traveling, the tiny space had been invaded by miller moths, filling the air and covering the floor with scaly dust. The bugs had settled on top of the refrigerator, our wooden picnic table used for dining, and the vinyl brown couch. Nothing was untouched, and those that had expired made a rumply and crunchy carpet across the floor. I learned later the insects were indigenous to the western high plains and migrated in the late spring and early summer to the cooler weather of the Rocky Mountains in an annual search of flowering plants for nectar. Wetter weather had delayed their passage and the invasion of structures was ubiquitous across the farms and homes scattered throughout the plains east of Denver.
“Oh my god,” Mary Lou said. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Start sweeping and swatting is all I can think of.”
The day was late and we did not see any moths flying among the trees or bushes as we had approached the adobe, which prompted another suggestion to open the door and windows and see if they were drawn to the outside air. Sister-in-law Bonnie had a better idea.
“Let’s close everything to make it darker and then turn on one light and hold a bowl of soapy water up to it. They’ll get trapped when they go to the light.”
A few hours later we had rid ourselves of what had initially seemed like a Biblically scaled pestilence by constantly dumping outdoors the bowls filled with soapy moths. Cleanup took longer for the newlyweds after Bonnie, Ronnie, and their boys departed to camp at the coincidentally named Bonnie Reservoir, and then left us for the mountains. I would have happily hung a plaque in her honor at the recreation area’s entrance to memorialize her moth fighting brilliance.
We settled into building our life in a remote community where our only acquaintances were people from the radio station and my softball team. My boss, who called himself “Kev Sock-it To Me,” on the air, was famous for ending his afternoon show every day by telling the town how he could not wait to get out to the country club and have a plate of fried Rocky Mountain oysters. He was such an arrogant outlander from a privileged family in upstate New York I doubt anyone ever told him he was dining daily on fried cattle testicles. Meanwhile, playing fast pitch softball had endeared me to teammates after I surprised them by winning a game with a last inning, two out, three run homer over the centerfield fence. It was only a softball game between two rival farm and ranch towns, played on a dusty field surrounded by tall cottonwood trees, but I went through the decades wishing I could have bottled the happiness and emotion of that moment.
Mary Lou quickly found two part-time jobs at a nursing home and a department store and I was up before sunrise during weekdays to sign on the radio station. My immediate goal had been to become a news broadcaster but I spent most of my four hours of air time playing records and reading segments like the names and ailments of area residents admitted and dismissed from the local hospital, or cattle and commodity prices on the daily farm and ranch market report. Pork belly prices fluctuated wildly that year, as I recall. The distance between the spinning of records at a plywood-walled studio in the beet fields of Eastern Colorado and me filing a network report as a correspondent from the Khyber Pass was far greater than I was able to comprehend. Nonetheless, I dreamed, and constantly scanned the Help Wanted ads at the back of Broadcasting Magazine each week, and mailed off resume’ tapes to any station in any town or city that needed a full-time reporter, and not a DJ-journalist hybrid.
"The distance between the spinning of records at a plywood-walled studio in the beet fields of Eastern Colorado and me filing a network report as a correspondent from the Khyber Pass was far greater than I was able to comprehend."
I also read the weather forecasts off the wire machine. One of those used language I had never before heard, which described a dust storm coming across the plains and blown up by winds off the Rockies. Zero visibility was being experienced as it passed down from the West - Northwest, and the National Weather Service was urging people to get off the roads and stay indoors. A few colleagues at the radio station said they had been through similar storms that were often described as being reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression. I called my bride at work.
“We have to get home,” I said. “The weather forecast says there’s a giant dust storm or cloud or something coming this way and it will make a blackout in the middle of the day.”
“What can we do?”
“Everybody here says to get wet towels and seal up window panes and doors and just wait for it to pass. If we don’t, everything will be covered with dirt after it clears out.”
“Worse than the moths?”
“I don’t know. I’ll see you at the apartment.”
The wind roared loudly enough when the storm arrived that I was more afraid of windows breaking than the dirt. We kept the curtains closed but we were able to peek at a brown darkness, more lacking in light than the night. The wet towels kept the dirt from infiltrating our living space for maybe five minutes and then we began breathing it almost like ingesting handfuls of sand into our lungs and eyes. When the dust cloud had moved through, a heavy coating of dirt lay across every inch of our apartment. The wet cloths had hardly performed. Outside, houses and cars and sidewalks were covered with dirt like the dusting of an early brown winter snowfall. Little drifts of blown sand and topsoil climbed up the corners of our windowsills and piled up against the steps.
Routine life in an isolated small town presents certain attendant charms, however. My daily commute to the radio station was less than five minutes and Mary Lou was able to walk a few short blocks to both of her employers’ locations. We began to meet people and marshaled our modest resources to dine out and see a movie at the theater on Main Street, but we were both acutely aware of my ambitions, which served as both an engine of our dreams and a bit of a potential curse. Our existence as young marrieds out there on the plains was nowhere near idyllic and we confronted frequent inconveniences but we might have experienced a bit more joy had I not been running so hot to take a significant career step into full-time reporting. The uncontrolled urgency of my youth made me especially culpable of bad judgment, which became clear when I got a call responding to one of my job applications.
“Hey, I heard your tape,” the voice said. “I’d like to talk to you about a job.”
“Which station are you?” I asked. “I’ve sent out a lot of tapes.”
“We’re in Searcy, Arkansas. Not too far from Little Rock. You want to do news, right?”
“Yeah, I want to be a reporter.”
“Well, all our people are news people.”
“What does that mean?”
“I make certain all our employees are curious about our community and ask questions, and that often turns into news stories.”
“I don’t want to be a DJ any more.”
“You can do other things to help out, though, I assume. How much are you earning?”
“I make $550 a month,” I said. “Plus I get $25 every time I do a high school play-by-play of one of the sports teams.”
“I can pay you more than that. You want the job?”
“Will you fly me down to meet and look around?”
“No, we can’t afford to do that.”
“Well, okay, let me talk to my wife and I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Playing the role of entertaining morning DJ and balancing that against attempting legitimate reporting on the community was no minor feat, and I had no mastery of the task. Station management was uncertain of what to make of me, until I offered up a bit of fun, and then they got certainty. Nights, I sometimes spent outside the adobe and next to the Opal listening to the AM radio station in the dash and the 50,000 watt clear channel KOMA out of Oklahoma City. Their station ID struck me as the ultimate audio production ever from local radio. A basso profundo voice came on the air and said, “Serving 22 states, and three countries, this is KOMA, Oklahoma City.” The one liner was followed by a large explosion, a cannon shot, I thought, and then the music rolled.
The unfortunate idea occurred to me to make a similar ID for our station and provide a little satire on life in a small town. I went into the studio, squeaked up my voice, and recorded: “Serving 22 homes, three gas stations, two donut shops, and ten thousand pickup trucks, this is KNAB, Burlington, Colorado,” which was followed by a tinkling of bells instead of cannon fire. My sense of humor turned out to be poorly calibrated and I was duly chastened by Kev Sock-It Toomey, who threatened me with unemployment. He had previously explained that he had designed a format that relied on dependable time and temperature announcements for entertainment purposes, a concept I found entertaining just to hear it explained.
No word of a farewell party arrived as Mary Lou and I hurriedly dragged our modest belongings into the back of the U-Haul panel truck and lit out for the Ozarks. Our resources were sorely limited so our plan was to drive through the night and save the cost of a motel, arriving in our new town by mid-morning. Because the Opal was a stick shift, she had to drive the truck with the automatic transmission. On the north side of Tulsa, sometime after midnight, she began flashing her headlights in my mirror. We pulled over and she explained the engine was jerking and misfiring and she was having trouble keeping up. There was a payphone across the street and I called the 24-hour number for U-Haul and reached a man who probably did not think customer service included crawling out of bed and going to his gas station in the dark of night to deliver a replacement truck.
Sputtering through the bleakness on the industrial side of Tulsa, we finally found the proprietor. Men sat the curbs in front of his store, drinking from brown bags, and a few rose and followed us with turned heads as we pulled up next to the garage. I went to our U-Haul and quickly told Mary Lou to lay down on the seat of the truck and wait for me to return. Inside, I got the keys to the new vehicle from the drowsy proprietor, went outside and backed it up as close to the rear of ours as possible, and then slid open both doors. Within ten minutes, I had tossed all our cargo from one U-Haul to the other, closed and locked the cargo bay, and ran around to the front to get Mary Lou in the new truck before the teetering bystanders took notice. The entire process did not take twenty minutes.
Come morning, a monsoon seemed to be enveloping the Ozarks as we passed through Eureka Springs, sleepless and hungry, which had not changed when we arrived at the new station’s studios in Searcy. I think we were both droopy with gloom and fatigue when we were brought into meet the general manager. My salary was still a mystery and we had tossed over our Colorado beginnings for another unknown, a town that had little aesthetic appeal in the rain. Sunshine was not likely to turn it into Palm Springs, either.
“Well, it’s great to meet you both,” the GM said. “I really think you’re gonna like our station and like our little town.”
“Sure hope so,” I said. “Not much turning back for us.”
“You won’t want to, I’m sure. Now, let me tell you a little bit about myself.”
His lack of interest in our weariness and immediate needs was tone deaf for someone who was supposed to be leading people and running a business. He said his name was Steve, I do not remember the surname, and he had come down from Kansas City because he wanted a small town life for his kids. Steve’s clip-on tie was gray and hanging sideways against his faded blue dress shirt and his tall forehead was shining under the fluorescents in his office. My sense was he was trying to appear polished but knew he was not able to pull it off. We had to hear how he was the number one jock for almost a decade in KC and had made millions for his station, but Searcy, by God, is where he wanted to be. My patience expired.
“Don’t mean to be rude, Steve,” I said. “But we really need to get something to eat, find a motel for the night, and take a quick look around at housing.”
“Oh, yeah, sure, sure. I’m sorry. Let me get my chief engineer to drive you around and show you some housing options and a motel. He knows how much you are going to be earning so he’ll know the spots to show you two.”
“I’d like to know how much I’m earning, too,” I said. “Can we talk about that?”
“Oh yeah, of course, of course. I’ll get with you tomorrow.”
I was afraid my pay was a dirty little secret I did not want to learn. The engineer drove directly to an RV park and campground and explained there were probably a few rentals in decent camper trailers available. Mary Lou and I did not respond.
“Based on your earnings, you’re probably gonna have to start here,” he said.
There were a few older Airstream trailers, one with a large concave indentation on the roof, campers in the beds of pick up trucks, heavy canvas wall tents with wooden floors, and what appeared to be overnight cabins without utilities. The rain was so loud on his car I had to raise my voice to be heard from the back seat.
“Would you take us back to the station so we can pick up our vehicles and find a motel? We’re pretty tired.”
A neon vacancy sign leaned out over the highway under a sky growing even darker and I went inside and paid for a room. We had not bothered to stop and eat, and when I turned on the light, we collapsed onto the bed still wearing our wet clothes. I think we started sobbing at the same time and we listened to the rain banging off the window box air conditioner. As we held each other, I stared at the wood paneled walls and the dull linoleum floor, and wondered how we had arrived in this moment. We were on our own. Our parents did not have resources to rescue us from our current desperations.
“Let’s not stay in this town,” I said.
“What do you mean?” She rolled over and looked at me.
“We can go back to the farm, and I’ll try to figure things out.”
“Do we have enough money?”
“I think so. But let’s not worry about it. We’ll get up in the morning, have a good breakfast, and then go back north.”
“Are you sure? What about your career?”
“This isn’t it. Don’t worry.”
The sky was a glorious blue the next day and the sunlight revivified our hopes. Not many hours later we were crossing the Mississippi River on the high bridge at Cairo, Illinois. The wind had picked up and blew hard against the panel truck and I worried she was afraid and I slowed to watch closely in the rearview mirror. I wanted to do all our worrying and for her to have happiness. Less than six months into our new marriage, though, and I had already created a grand failure that was leading us back to her parents’ little dairy farm. I tried hard to forgive myself, but I could not. What do the young know, though, when they are starting out, leaving family and friends, taking their first big chance? Not much, I realized, but then I smiled, thinking about the puffed up radio boss back in Searcy.
I wonder if he’s still waiting for me to show up for work.