Chapter 23: Keeping Busy

The board of directors voted to sell the American Sash and Door to people from out of town. Herb agreed to stay on its president, but he soon realized that the new owners didn’t know anything about doing business in Kansas City and weren’t willing to learn. They owned several sash and door companies in different parts of the country and wanted them all to conform to a single business model.

He spent a few years trying to educate them and then in 1963, he retired. He wasn’t rich, but he was no longer afraid of being poor. Mary Ellen was proud of him but didn’t look forward to having him “underfoot.” One morning she found him in the kitchen gazing at the window of her front-load washer.

“There’s soap in there,” he told her, wonderingly.

“You’ve got to keep busy,” she warned.

Hearing Herb had retired, his old roommate, Jack Jones, who now owned several lumberyards, asked him for advice about a business matter. Then he asked him for more advice. Finally he told Herb that he might as well come to work for him, which had been his plan all along. Herb warned him that he might not like his terms. Among other things he intended to take several months off every year. He was going to keep his promise to take Mary Ellen places. And he intended to do a lot of hunting. But actually he was happy to “get back in the harness.” During his last years at the American, his work hadn’t had much to do with the products the company actually produced. To actually “figure jobs” and josh with the contractors was a treat for him.

Jack was a smoker, a drinker, a practical joker, and a risk-taker from Arkansas. He had attended the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Arkansas. He was also a Democrat. Herb was a Republican who neither drank nor smoked. He had grown up poor, was risk-averse, and had gone to law school at night instead of going to college. In almost every way, they were opposites, but they shared a history. They both came to Kansas City in the 1920s. They bunked together while they were bachelors. They both went into the lumber business. They both married KDs, and they were both hunters. During the Depression they said they hunted in order to feed their families. As practical men, they wanted to believe hunting was a practical activity, but they knew better. They often joked about how much each bird they shot had cost them.

When Herb hunted alone, he wasn’t hunting “for” anything in particular. He would bring home a squirrel or a rabbit. When he hunted quail, duck, or geese, he usually went with Jack, and once a year he and Jack and some friends went to South Dakota to hunt pheasant.

Hunting had been Herb’s consolation and refuge when he was a boy. Shivering in a makeshift blind as he waited for ducks to come to the abandoned mining pit behind his house, he was free and at peace. If he got a duck, he would first look around for the hammers to his old shotgun. They fell off every time he pulled the trigger. Then he would push off in a makeshift raft to look for his duck.

He didn’t like a lot of things about the life he’d led as a boy. He was glad those years were behind him. But at the same time, he missed that life and those years. And when he was alone in the fields, or out there with just his friend Jack, he could almost believe he was back in time. Sometimes he got that feeling at the movies, too—when he was watching a Western. Mary Ellen wouldn’t go with him to Westerns. She disapproved of them.

“Too violent,” she said.

Actually, she thought they were too “low,” but Herb didn’t know this. It had never occurred to him that a movie could be “low” or “high.” He didn’t even care if they were good or bad. He went to see Westerns in order to get glimpses of the world he knew as a boy in the Oklahoma Territory—a world where women wore sunbonnets and long dresses, drove wagons to town to buy supplies, walked on wooden sidewalks, and read books at night by the light of coal oil lamps. When Western movies began getting “too slick,” he stopped going to see them.

The historian Harvey C. Mansfield says that in America, “Every­one can have a ‘career’; no one can imagine anything more.” Herb (and Jack, too, I assume) were hunting for that unimaginable something more. There was no word for it in their practical business lexicon. Nor could its name be found in the sermons of their “socially responsible” preachers. But sometimes Herb could sense the nearness of what he was after when he was out hunting for something else. Its ghostly presence was surely at the back of his mind when he took the trouble to write in his memoir about “one special time” when he and Jack sat down to rest after hunting quail all day.

The evening was just “coming on,” and all around them “the birds made music, calling to each other and regrouping for the night.”