A Garden of Sand

garden of sand001

In an effort to help me learn as much as possible about Gene Smith’s life and times in Wichita, Kansas, 1918-1936, my research assistant, Hank Stephenson, who is the only person I know to have read the entirety of Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (he tracked down and read many of Burton’s original sources, too), recently read Earl Thompson‘s 1970 novel, “A Garden of Sand,” set in Wichita in the 1930s.  This morning Hank handed me Thompson’s opening passage:

“Love a place like Kansas and you can be content in a garden of raked sand. For ground it is the flattest. Big sky, wheat sea, William Inge, bottle clubs, road houses—Falstaff and High Life, chili and big juke road houses—John Brown, Wild Bill Hickock, Carry A. Nation, cockeyed Wyatt Earp, Pretty Boy Floyd, and shades of all those unspoken Indians. Out there on the flat, in a wheat sea, on spooky buffalo grasses where the ICBM’s go down into the shale and salt of a prehistoric sea wherein the mighty mosasaurs once roamed and the skies were not cloudy all day.

Where John Brown and Pretty Boy Floyd could have run one-two in any election through 1937, there are still more members of the Townsend Clubs than anywhere else save Long Beach. And professional baseball can’t make a dime, while semipro can draw 25,000 fans to a swing-shift game getting under way at 1 A.M. of a Tuesday between the Honolulu Hawaiians and the Boing Bo-Jets. The state was strong for Bryan, and it had Alf Landon. It went for Nixon and dug Goldwater. It admired John L. Lewis for his stubbornness but never let labor unions get more than a toehold anywhere. It built one of the best educational systems in the land, then let the Boy Scouts set miniature Statues of Liberty on all the lawns.

Where traditionally, though as Republican in taste as Ike’s sport jackets, a governor of the state rarely succeeds in office even if the electorate has to go for a Democrat. It is the same with all public office holders. And should the incumbent’s opponent be of such a known unconscionable quantity that they trust the governor for a second term, he could pay his own carfare and postage and still not go for three. Which is why Wilkie could have carried the state with a picture postcard.

Where ministers preach against “The Carnal Knowledge of Women” as if it were a Communist plot and seek legislation against smoking and obscene literature as if one were the crypto-cover for the other; the girls are prettier than those up in the hills on the Missouri side, and virginity before marriage—or puberty, for that matter—means less than regular church attendance. Calvinism still runs deeper than the missile sites bore, and the Amish are ever more respected than Papists. Women who were taken in by Jackie Kennedy will never be fooled by Jackie O.

Where the displaced progeny of rebels fleeing for their lives after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 came walking out of the American highlands after the Battle of Shiloh looking once more for a place where a man tired of war and rumors of war might live once and for all on his own terms. It is a place where carny hustlers and storefront gypsies can still work the shell game and the money witch every day of the week and Hadacol outsells Johnny Walker.

Calvinism gets its test every summer by any erstwhile Gantry who can rent a tent and con the local funeral parlors out of folding chairs and cardboard fans on a stick. Attendance at regular churches thins out appreciably as soon as the revivalist’s sound truck has gone once around, and Christians, whether they sprinkle, pour, or half-drown, are hard pressed to get up a quorum until the Bible-banger pulls the plug on the last electric Christian guitar and beats it out of town with the tent and awning company wanting to know who is going to pay the last week’s rent on the tabernacle.

Then all those abandoned souls who had mad passionate, spontaneous decisions for Christ down on their knees in the sawdust under canvas shake out their cuffs and come penitently back as from a week’s vacation at the Sodom and Gomorrah Hilton, looking straight ahead, seeing in the eyes of their preacher above that superior, all-forgiving-smile their sin—idolatry! Confessed and forgiven, they are ready once again to bear the winter’s long hymns while a high, bright, cold winter sun illuminates the stained glass. There is that dry prairie cold in which you can freeze to death feeling only a warm drowsiness.

So, though any Kansan knows in his heart that in the end all those dandy saviors go South, there is a kind of displaced black, Highland-Scandinavian hope into which any sort of witch doctor or witch hunter can worm. Sitting on enough nuclear explosive to blow his ass to atoms, the collective Kansas tunes in “Let Freedom Ring” and sincerely believes the only Christian thing to do is to obliterate Peking. And many still want a shot at Rome, too. “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country” is how Hermann Goring put it.

Which leaves Kansas just about the same as anyplace else that hasn’t as yet had the benefits of the civilizing influence of the Mafia operating on the local level. Where ordinary man’s sins, repentances, and hopes are of no more consequence than some long gone Indian vision quest. The record is yet more important than the private man.

This is a story of ordinary, hardworking, often out of work Christians who are Kansans until they die.”

1 Comment

  1. david wilson Said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    Hey thanks for posting that. I like the way you think–find out about Gene Smith? Go to Kansas or read the novels that were written by his artistic equals from there.

    You made me want to run down the street to the library and get Earl Thompson’s books and read them.

    David Wilson