I know more about my father’s high school than my mother’s. It was smaller and the yearbook more personal. It is worth noting that there were more girls than boys in Herb’s senior class, and at a time when segregation was rampant in the United States, Cherokee County High was integrated. I don’t know how many blacks lived in Cherokee County in those days, but there were two black boys in Herb’s senior class and three blacks in the freshman class—two boys and a girl. One of the black seniors seems to have been widely respected.
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Chapter 11: Herb’s Big Ideas
Herb played mumblety-peg by himself in the shadow of the water tower until he heard the train.
“Where y’ bound, boy?” asked the conductor while the fireman was lowering the spout from the water tower.
The train took him west from Missouri to Kansas and south to Columbus, a city seven miles from his grandfather’s farm. It was the most “considerable place” he had ever seen. It had sixty-five miles of concrete sidewalks, thirty-one-and-a-half miles of concrete roads, eight automobile garages, two telephone systems, three grain elevators, two wholesale groceries, a broom factory, an ice cream factory, and a marble works. Three railroads and one interurban trolley line stopped there. Every house was connected to the sewer—no outhouses. Nobody died of typhoid in Columbus. The city boasted a $50,000 hospital, “modern in every respect.”
Columbus wasn’t like those small towns in the northeast where a wealthy Protestant elite presided over a community of recent immigrants who were poor and mostly Catholic. In those towns, the sons of the dominant families went off to Lawrenceville or Groton to prep for Princeton or Harvard or Yale. Nobody in Columbus went to schools like that. Some of the people in Columbus were wealthier than others. But nobody “put on airs.” The folks in Columbus sent their children to Cherokee County High, which, according to the Chamber of Commerce, was one of the best high schools in the whole southwest.
That night Herb slept on a bench in the Columbus depot. When he woke up the next morning, he found he was being stared at by a man eating a sandwich. Herb went off to do his business. When he returned, the man asked what brought him to Columbus. Herb told him.
“I bet you’re broke.”
Herb admitted as much.
The morning train stopped outside the station. People began getting on and off.
“Here,” said the stranger. He handed Herb half his sandwich. Then he hopped on his train and rode out of Herb’s life forever.
“Much obliged!” Herb called as the train pulled away. He took a bite of the sandwich, stuffed the rest into a pocket for lunch, and started walking. He went from farm to farm asking for work. “Nothing here, boy. Try over yonder.” Finally he found a farmer who knew his grandparents, and, after being assured of their consent, the man took Herb on for the summer of 1916. First he was a water boy. Later he helped shuck wheat and oats.
He did not go to school that fall. He simply wasn’t ready yet for Cherokee County High School. He spent the winter on his grandparents’ farm near Sherwin Junction.
On April 6th, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany, and Herb’s uncle, Charlie Souder, hired him as a full-fledged harvest hand. The wheat harvest began in early June that year. And the morning after the threshing machine arrived, Herb was out in the barn at four in the morning to feed and harness his span of mules in order to get them ready to drive to the fields right after breakfast. From the barn, he could see that Uncle Charlie’s wife had a lamp lit in the kitchen. There would be oatmeal, fried ham, and plenty of eggs for breakfast—and an even bigger lunch and dinner. Yesterday he’d helped her catch six chickens. She’d killed them, dressed them, and, to keep them cool, put them in the buckets that were hanging in the well, along with her milk, butter, and cream. Her beans were snapped and ready to be cooked. Her cakes and pies had been baked a couple of days before. She had plenty of pickled cucumbers and beets. And Charlie had dug her a nice bunch of potatoes.
The man who ran the threshing machine came in through the kitchen. He’d been out before breakfast firing up its steam engine. The neighbors were arriving, men and women, the latter bringing more food for the threshers.
“In those days,” wrote my father, “the neighbors from far and near helped each other, moving from one farm to another with the threshing machine. There were a few hired hands like myself, but mostly neighbors. There would be so many men they would have to eat in shifts. If you didn’t get to the first table or at least the second, all the goodies would be gone. Well, as I said, I soon caught on and with a little head work between me and my mules, we most of the time managed to get to the first table. It was all in the timing of getting to the threshing machine to get your load off.”
The thresher or separator was connected to a steam engine by belts. A water wagon stood next to the engine to provide it with water and also to put out any fires caused by sparks from the tinder box. When the operator started the separator, he listened until its clattering sounded right. Then he waved to the men holding pitchforks, and they began feeding bundles into the thresher. The noise grew louder, blending the sounds of grinding, brushing, thumping, and roaring. The grain went one way; straw, another; and the machine belched clouds of dusty chaff.
The man driving the wagon watched as the machine’s funnel dropped grain into a wagon bed. When it was full, he drove off and another wagon drew up under the funnel. The sky was cloudless; the temperature, usually between ninety and a hundred and ten.
Now and again, women showed up at the edge of the field with ice-tea and ginger cookies. Occasionally someone forked up a snake or scared up a rabbit. But it was mostly just sweaty, repetitious, coordinated, silent work. It went on until nearly dark. Supper was at eight or eight-thirty. After supper, Charlie and the men who were “staying over” in the barn sat on the porch and smoked and talked and chewed and spit for a while before turning in. Herb heard the men say that up in Michigan, Henry Ford was paying fellows five dollars a day to put automobiles together.
The war sent the price of wheat up to a dollar a bushel. Herb was making three dollars a day, plus room and board on his uncle’s farm. He saved every nickel, and in the fall of 1917, he rented a room in Columbus and enrolled as a junior at Cherokee County High School. The other kids had known each other since grade school. They hardly noticed him, but he didn’t mind. He stuck to business, and school went pretty well for him that year.
In September 1918, he enrolled for his senior year, expecting to graduate that spring. The war was winding down and would be over in November, but in communities scattered across the globe, what seemed like a common cold turned out to be a new, mysterious, often deadly kind of influenza. In practically no time it spread everywhere and became the worst epidemic in history. An estimated 625,000 Americans died of it, ten times as many as died in the war, and the world-wide death toll is estimated at between 20 to 40 million.
Normally, children and the elderly are the most likely to die from epidemic diseases, but in this instance, healthy young adults were the primary victims. The death rate for 15- to 34-year-olds was 20 times higher in 1918 than in previous years. People who were infected often died within hours. Soldiers crowded together in army barracks were particularly susceptible.
By mid-October, the death rate in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia jumped 700 percent. Doctors had no idea what to do. Streetcar conductors wouldn’t let anyone on who wasn’t wearing a gauze mask. Companies closed their factories. Public Health departments forbade stores to hold sales; funerals were limited to 15 minutes, and there was a shortage of coffins. Politicians canceled public events. And though the nation was still at war, several cities stopped drafting men into the army. Newspapers published long lists of the dead. People said German spies were responsible. But little girls skipping rope blamed a little bird: “I had a little bird. / Its name was Enza. / I opened the window / And in flew Enza.”
The war ended at eleven a.m. on November 11, 1918, but the influenza epidemic was just getting started. Cherokee County High School closed, and Herb, with time on his hands, looked for a job. Hearing the Hercules Powder Factory over in Carl Junction was still operating, he went over there to see if he could “catch on.” They hired him, and to his delight, he found they were paying war wages. He would make five dollars a day. After renting a room in town, he made a quick trip to Columbus for some clothes and “necessaries.” Then he reported for work. His job was to check invoices while a crew of laborers unloaded boxcars. But the day they started rolling out barrels marked “Glycerin,” Herb put down his sheaf of invoices and skedaddled.
The laborers stopped work. The straw boss showed up and asked what was going on. They told him. He found Herb and assured him it wasn’t nitroglycerin. The laborers got a good laugh out of that.
The munitions-making went on in two-man magazines positioned around the base of a hill. That was so if one of them “went” the others wouldn’t “go,” too. While Herb was working there, one of them “went.” All they found of the two men who’d been inside was a piece of scalp stuck to a tree. There was some red hair on it, so they knew which fellow it belonged to.
Hearing that CCHS was going to reopen, Herb quit his job and went back to Columbus. He rented a third-floor room in the home of a member of the school board and figured he was “set.” His room even had a stove in it.
When his landlady didn’t see him for a couple of days, she climbed up to the third floor and found him in bed, running a fever, gagging, and struggling to clear his nose and throat. Her husband set up a bed in the parlor, carried Herb downstairs, and put him into it. His wife applied a sticky, hot “mustard plaster” to Herb’s chest and piled on blankets to make him sweat.After they called the doctor, they prayed. Herb figured later that they treated him as if he were their own son, though at the time he didn’t know how he was being treated or even where he was.
CCHS reopened, but Herb knew nothing about it. Even after he “was out of the woods,” he was “weak as a kitten”—too week to go back to school. He recuperated on his grandfather’s farm. The following year, he once again rented a room in town and enrolled in high school. He had plenty of money for a change and was looking forward to a good year.
Shortly after school started, however, a couple of his classmates decided they didn’t like “the cut of his jib.” They caught him one day after school and began roughing him up. A tall, athletic boy with wavy blond hair came to his rescue. The boy’s name was Leland, but everyone called him “Gibbie.” He was the school’s star athlete, the captain of both the baseball and basketball teams, the vice president of the Student Athletic Association, and the president of the senior class. In the spring of his senior year, he was voted the most popular boy in the school.
At Gibbie’s invitation, Herb tried out for football. Though small, he made the team. He was so proud of himself that he invited Grandpa Hicks to come see a practice session after school. One afternoon when the old man was in town on business, he stopped by the school to watch.
“What did you think?” Herb asked.
The old man took his pipe from his mouth, arched a squirt of tobacco juice into the dirt, looked at Herb and said, “All that game amounts to is a buncha hogs wallerin’.”
The games were held on Saturdays and were often played in neighboring towns, so the going and coming took the whole day. Grandpa thought Herb should be spending his weekends on the farm doing some chores to pay for all the bacon and eggs his grandmother was sending him. But Herb got himself elected sports editor of the annual and told his grandfather that he had to go to all the games, not just to play in them, but to write them up.
Grandpa dropped the subject. He could see that the boy had the bit in his teeth.
The games were played on uneven pastures that had recently been occupied by cattle or horses. During the game against Fort Scott, several players hit their heads on rocks and were knocked unconscious. Herb was knocked out twice. And to top it off, Fort Scott won forty to zero.
Until his senior year, Herb had been an outsider at Cherokee County High. He was small, lived alone in a rented room, and was a transfer student. He didn’t always know what the kids at Cherokee High were talking about. But being a friend of Gibbie’s changed all that. Herb joined the Glee Club, played on the football team, and was on the staff of the annual. He even had a minor role in the senior play, The Price of the Prairie, playing the part of “Cam Gentry, a landlord who squints.” The play was set in a town called “Springvale,” which was described as “an Antislavery Town of the Upper Neosho.”
Assemblies at CCHS were called “chapels.” Before a game, the students went to a “pep chapel.” At the beginning of each school year, the local churches gave a reception in the auditorium for the freshmen. It was like a sorority or fraternity rush party at a college but instead of being “rushed” by Gamma Phi Beta or Pi Kappa Alpha, the students were “rushed” by the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist Sunday Schools. The two most important student clubs were sponsored by the YWCA and the YMCA. (The famous “wall of separation” between church and state had not yet been invented.)
If a senior had a nickname, it appeared beside his or her yearbook picture along with a comment by the editors summing up his personality. Herb’s nickname was “Kid-nap.” A girl named Martha was called “Matt.” Clarence Bradley was “Brad.” But why was Alice called “Bill”? Why was George Field, a popular athlete, called “Jew”? It’s plain why one of the girls was “Chubb.” Most of the editorial comments about the students are anodyne. Of my father, the editors said, “A hit he makes with all who see / His smiling physiognomy.” But sometimes they found themselves at a loss. All they could think of to say about Juanita was, “Very quiet and unassuming.”
The school was racially integrated, which surprised me at first. But it figures. CCHS was not in Missouri, a pro-slavery state. It was in “Bleeding Kansas,” where the abolitionists prevailed over the pro-slavery forces after a protracted and merciless guerrilla war. However, there were only two black students in Herb’s senior class, both boys, none in the junior and sophomore classes, and only three, two boys and a girl, in the freshman class.
The black students in the freshman class appear in group photographs lined up with their classmates. The individual photographs of the two black seniors appear on a separate page, apart from the other seniors. Plainly, they were not totally accepted, but they were not totally rejected, either. Beside the photograph of one of the black graduates, the editors wrote: “In whose heart there is no song. / To him the miles are many and long.” Of the other, they wrote: “The real leaders do not always march at the head of the procession.”
I have no idea how many blacks lived in Columbus at this time. But very few of the children who lived there, white or black, went on to high school in those days. And in Cherokee County most of those who did were girls. Of the 62 students in Herb’s senior class only 20 were boys. Boys were needed in the fields.
A student at CCHS could study Latin, French, Spanish, English, history, drawing, music, botany, agriculture, shop, home ec., science, several different kinds of math, music, physiology, teacher training, and commercial. The latter included shorthand, and bookkeeping.
As Herb’s last semester approached, he considered his options. He could be a merchant, a miner, or a farmer. The first two were definitely out. And while he liked farm work, farming was yesterday’s occupation. He consulted Miss Lilly Robinson, who taught bookkeeping and shorthand. She was “a wiry type, snappy and active in all school activities.” She advised him to take shorthand. She said the quickest way to be promoted was to become some man’s secretary. That was how to learn a business.
Herb told his grandparents that when he graduated he was going to try his luck in Kansas City. They didn’t believe him. Grandpa Hicks went ahead and bought a Fordson tractor—the first gasoline tractor in the county. He was sure his grandson would stick around to look after it for him. Herb did do some spring plowing on that tractor, but he was serious about Kansas City.
He hadn’t dated anyone in high school—hadn’t had the money to pay for treats nor the means to transport a young lady around. But one evening Grandpa’s milk separator broke down. Reluctantly, he told Herb to take the family car and go to town to buy parts. The car was a Buick with wooden spokes on its wheels—“banana wheels,” they called them. Herb drove slowly until he was out of sight, then he went lickety-split to the house of a girl he knew and took her for a ride. Then he drove lickety-split to town for the parts and back to the farm, slowing down only when he knew his grandparents could see him coming. No one was the wiser until the following Sunday when Uncle Charlie came over for dinner.
“Say, what sort of emergency did you folks have last week? I saw your Buick go by my place doing at least forty.”
Grandpa Hicks puffed on his pipe, spit over the porch rail, and told him about the separator. But when Charlie left, Grandpa turned to Herb and demanded the whole story. He wasn’t pleased with what he heard.
Herb knew his grandparents were counting on him for help. They were getting too old to handle the farm by themselves. Grandpa offered him forty acres for himself and the use of the tractor. Grandma reminded him that he was flat broke. He nodded. But his mind was made up. He dreamed of going to college and resented the fact that they didn’t believe in him.
“I’ll ride the blinds if I have to.”
His grandfather stared at him but said nothing.
The “blinds” was the space outside the head end of the baggage car, between it and the tender, where hobos rode because no one could see them.
The old man walked off to the pasture to smoke and chew and spit. That night in bed, he talked it over with Lucy. She, of course, favored the boy. He knew she would. But he went along with her. He couldn’t countenance his grandson riding the blinds. The next day he offered to lend Herb fifty dollars, which was a lot of money in 1919.
Herb’s expression brightened—a little too much to suit the old man, who could foresee the day when he’d be unable to handle the farm alone.
“You’ll have to sign for it though. And, boy, if this note ain’t discharged in six months, we don’t never want to see you again.”
Grandma, looking uncomfortable, said nothing.
And Grandpa, to cover the fact that he’d spoken louder than he’d intended and hadn’t said what he wanted to say, sucked hard on his pipe, raised one eyebrow, and glared at his grandson.