Saturday, January 16, 2010

Echos from the frontier past

My gunner was fast asleep in the passenger seat of the humvee I was driving as the convoy leader in his vehicle began to slow down and lead the rest of the convoy off the pavement and stop on the side of the road. It was the middle-of-no-where southeastern Colorado in the last hour of daylight and I had been driving since the last rest stop outside Pueblo. After two hours at the wheel my knees were aching from sitting in the restricted confines of the two seat model of the military utility truck.
While the army had certainly bought an excellently designed and rugged vehicle for just about any terrain it might find itself operating in the humvee, for me, had one major engineering flaw. They did not take into consideration anyone taller than six-foot having to drive or ride in the vehicle for extended periods of time. While the driver seat could be adjusted somewhat it simply wasn’t enough to alleviate the cramped and awkward position someone my height had to deal with on such long trips. The passenger seat was even worse with no adjustments which was the reason my gunner, a kid named Pulaski from Wisconsin, was snoozing instead of driving himself.
The young lieutenant who was convoy leader quickly ran down the length of the trailing vehicles obviously just to stretch out his own legs. “Thirty minute rest stop,” he yelled along the way. Get water, eat, and take a piss but be ready to move out when I call.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice and I was out the vehicle before my gunner was fully awake. I had slapped the young kid hard on his Kevlar helmet to wake him up before opening the flimsy vinyl door and stepping outside. It was early February and a freezing wind was blowing damn near parallel to the state road we were driving on which would eventually bring us to our destination, the Pinion Canyon Maneuver site for a three week field exercise.
It was a terrific relief to be out the vehicle but as I stretched looking northward it was nothing but flat plains with a few rolling hills. The hard asphalt of the road stretched off into the distance either way, empty of any other travelers giving the impression that the road might be some forgotten relic of a lost time.
Clumps of dried brown grass waving in the wind and sinister looking scrub bushes with plenty of thorns in an otherwise barren landscape were the only evidence of any life that I could see. The sky was empty except for a few small clouds that were a dark golden hue as if the setting sun was roasting them. The only sound, besides the blowing wind whipping through the prairie grass, was the voices of my fellow soldiers enjoying the momentary break from the tedium of the long drive.
I didn’t see the ruined homestead until I went around to the other side of my vehicle. I don’t really know why I didn’t see it from the first, it may have been my initial desire just to get out and give my near throbbing knees a break or that my brain was scrambled due to the drone of the engine and the near absence of any sensory input on the road. But once I did notice it immediately fascinated me sitting all alone in the middle of that silent desolation.
It was a little over a hundred yards off the road and a few other soldiers in the convoy were already ambling in its direction. Unable to control my curiosity, and with no desire to try and communicate with the “white-boy rapper” from Wisconsin I was teamed with I began walking that way myself.
This being the beginning of a major field training exercise we had all been issued our rifles, and along with wearing our Loading Bearing Equipment around our chests and kevlars helmets on our heads, had to keep our weapons with us at all times. For the five guys and me walking toward the ruined homestead it lent a surreal air to our exploration as if we expected to be fired upon. Adding to the atmosphere was the crunching sounds of our footsteps on the pebbles and dried branches littered about the ground that had somehow broken off the thorny bushes in the area. Everything was just too still and except for the wind and our footsteps, too quiet.
The roof to the house had been destroyed sometime in the past exposing the inside to the elements but the four walls were still standing. We all were approaching the front of the house which was marked by a door way and a small, single window. Both were wood framed but whatever actual door and windowpanes that might have fitted in those spaces had long since been lost.
Right from the first, our small group scouting the area were wondering how old the place was, the house looked to be constructed of mud bricks and after we stepped inside the walls showed no evidence of any electrical outlets or wiring. The floor was packed stones or hard earth with weathered pieces of finished wood that may have come from the roof or abandoned furniture scattered about the floor. Once inside it became clear how small the house actually was with the total area being about that of a large modern living room.
“Jesus, my backyard storage shed is bigger than this place. I can’t believe people actually lived here.” One guy said whom if I remember right came from an upper middle class family somewhere in California.
“Nope, I bet this was a pioneer home,” the lieutenant, who was the convoy leader said coming in the doorway. “Probably ranchers, maybe sheep herders but I sure as Hell would bet they weren’t farmers. I don’t believe you could grow anything in this godforsaken area. I’d say this homestead dates from the mid to late nineteenth century although you might be surprised how many people lived like this well into the twentieth.”
I was quiet; through this exchange all I could think about was the utter desolation that was about the only defining characteristic of this area even now. The nearest town was about thirty miles behind us and from all I could see it consisted of a post office, a small store, and a couple of small homes. While certain aspects of such a life appeals to me even now I had enough empathy and prior knowledge to understand the Hell it might be to some.
A few years before I had joined the army I had watched a PBS documentary about life on the open prairie. The first part of the show delved deep into the early history of those pioneers who settled the plains. However, the most poignant segment dealt with life on the plains in the early years of national radio. The documentary explained starting in the late twenties all the way to the fifties various soap companies sponsored a sort of radio variety show that had everything from what we would describe as mini soap operas, comedy, music, recipe, and simple music segment among others. These shows became vital lifelines to lonely women living out on the plains for which any neighbors could far too distant to supply any real company or companionship. Many of these listeners would write extremely personal letters to the radio show personalities they only knew as voices coming from a small box describing the utter desolation and loneliness. Many letters read on the documentary spoke of regret for coming out west. Some were stories of mental, emotional, and physical abuse in a time when such things were never mentioned. Most though were just conversational letters written to the radio personalities by women who just didn’t have anyone they could talk with at all.
With the missing roof and just looking at the four standing walls I could imagine life confined to such a small area during the winter months. Even with a radio to provide a very tenuous link to the outside world such an existence would be Hell. Looking around the ruins we stood that may have predated the invention of radio it was even harder to fathom such a life.
Stepping out the opposite doorway to the rear of the property brought more in the way or evidence of human habitation. Some sort of framed construction was jutting two feet up from the ground that everyone took to be the final remnant of a windmill. The same could be said with a line of what remained of fence posts that stretched off in the distance. Scattered around were isolated pieces of rusted metal and broken wood that’s original purpose could only be guessed at.
“Holy shit!” I remember one of my buddies in the group saying that had drifted over to what could be described as either a pathetic example of a small tree or a large bush. “LT, come look at this,” we all immediately walked over to the other side of the small tree wondering what had been found.
Someone had used small rocks, now firmly embedded in the ground, to create three five-foot by two-foot outlines. At what I’ll guess was the head of the graves was a larger slab of stone, also partial buried, that had what appeared to be letters and numbers carved into them.
Soldiers are a lot of things but all of us upon realizing what we had found removed our helmets out of respect. It was a heartbreaking sight being next those forgotten people buried in such a deserted place but adding to it was that someone had, using the same type of material as the head stones, constructed a crude bench at the foot of the graves. The entire scene spoke of some tragedy with one person left behind who continued to pursue some sort of existence at the homestead. The lieutenant, feeling that some sort of words should be spoken in honor of these people tried to read the words carved on the head stones. But they had long since weathered away to point that even that small memorial was lost.
“Alright people, we’re about to lose the sun, time to move out,” the lieutenant said a few minutes later donning his helmet with the rest of us following quickly behind. We were loaded up and moving down again before long with my gunner now driving. In the passenger seat of the humvee my thoughts were still with those souls that had tried to scratch out an existence on this land only to become part of it and then forgotten.
I marvel at the determination that those people had to muster to attempt such thing. What circumstances could have possibly pushed them to such poor land on the frontier or, I wonder, did they even have a choice? Whatever the reasons they braved the hardships and while in this case appearing to have lost others succeeded and built this country.
Many today wrap themselves in the American flag and speak of how proud and brave they are except that they largely live safe and mundane existences living off the glory and past efforts of others. About the only thing that will anger Americans these days is having to deal with whatever trivial inconveniences the modern world throws our way. We have even fallen to the point that we will sacrifice each other as long we stay warm, healthy, and happy. But when a real challenge does present itself we all too often find reasons to ignore it, or push it off on others or blame somebody else.
That is not the characteristics of a great people. The type of people that built this nation lay in those three forgotten graves in a desolate part of Colorado. It is they who rightly deserve to be remembered.


Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

This morning I only thought to read some news and enjoy vaping with coffee... instead I traveled with a group of soldiers via Hummvee to a place where noble lives were captured in memorial as soldiers discovered... and I experienced it with eloquence. TY Beach. Morning well spent. Ta.

sunshine said...

Wow. What a great story. I sit here now with a tear in my eye(s).
You're right. What do we do? Not much of anything.
Very few of us do anything to change the world we live in for the better. We all have hardships but not like what they had back in the day.

I couldn't have lived like that. I like to be on my own and I'm not crazy about crowds but I still need human contact. Not being able to just jump in a car and visit someone or go shopping or whatever.. that does seem like Hell.

I'm so glad that you and your comrades found that place. Not only are they remembered by you .. but now by us as well. Not forgotten at all...


SJ said...

a great piece of writing.
It was staggering read.


Randal Graves said...

You don't sound very patriotic, I'll have you know Wall Street works extremely hard to steal your money. Show some respect.

Vigilante said...

A searing tale, Beach. Well done!

Marja said...

wow your words paint such a picture of the remote homestead that it comes alive completely.
You are an amazing writer.
I become crazy even with thinking about it. Leaving family and friends behind when emigrating was already a big shock to the system.
Living in the middle of nowhere would make me suicidale. In NZ there are stil lots of people living in remote areas, but at least they are beautiful places.

Beach Bum said...

Gwen: Yeah, even with Miss Wiggles screaming for more Captain Crunch and Dragonwife wanting me to run to the store I got it published with only five typos that I corrected a few minutes ago. I'm getting better!

Sunshine: Out of all my posts that delve into my personal history and experiences I did my best to stay true to every aspect of the events in this post. Any error falls strictly on me and my memory.

And yes, I'm admitting that like Jimmy Buffett I can tell "semi-true" stories some time.

SJ: This just suddenly hit me at work Thursday night. Worked on it some Friday and got it out this morning. Thanks!

Randal: Yeah, those boys are doing "God's work". Dear Lord, them hanging by the neck from lamp posts is too good for them.

Vigil: I really need to find someone who will edit my posts. I typed "craved" instead of "carved" a couple of times. Bummer.

Marja: I could live in such places alone but I would need at least a radio. In fact when I think about my republican countrymen running me out of the country for my socialist views, my mental fantasy destination is often the south island of New Zealand.

A good word to the NZ immigration people would be much appreciated.

Oso said...

You set and describe a scene as well as any novelist I've read.

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

Yes, he does, don't he Oso? It's true Beach.... novella.

Mike said...

Nice job Beach!

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

You're right about the American people wanting to play it safe, etc.. I would also add, though, the fact that politicians never (at least when they're campaigning) ask any of us to make a sacrifice. I think that that adds to our feelings of entitlement, complacency, etc..

MRMacrum said...

A very engaging piece. Drew me in instantly. I think I just read the best piece of writing I have read of yours. Just excellent. This one's a keeper for sure.

Beach Bum said...

Oso and Gwen: Helps this time that it was drawn from real life. I wonder if the place is still there?

Mike: Thanks!

Will: Yeah, entitlement, complacency are soul killers along with apathy. I read an essay one time that suggested that if Americans had half the gumption we liked to believe we would energy independent, have excellent schools across the country, Europeans would not joke about the conditions of our roads, our bridges would not collapse, and we would be far more advanced in space exploration.

It could be that our situation is just part of the natural cycle of the rise and fall of nations and our time is drawing to an end. The only problem is that China is our emerging replacement so if we do fall and they don't reform to respect individual rights and liberties I don't see the continued development and improvement of human civilization as a sure thing.

David Brin, the famous sci-fi author, and blogger at Contrary Brin said in a post a few months ago that I wish like Hell I had bookmarked that the 21st century would be a struggle between free-market authoritarian regimes and free-market democracies. And from my point of view the democracies are already hurting, badly.

MRMacrum: I have started and deleted this story several times. Never could get the rhythm right nor the atmosphere of the surroundings. The desolation for me out there was both exhilarating and scary.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

You're right, double b, virtually every nation rises and falls.....and SOMETIMES rises again. The fate of our country? I hate to say it but I do in fact share your pessimism.

Beach Bum said...

Will: Only time will tell. My biggest concern about keeping the country going is that where will all the jobs we need to create come from.

Its laughable to suggest that the service economy can maintain a healthy middle class but it just isn't possible to keep all the low-tech manufacturing jobs that from the 40's to the 80's paid living wages.

The capitalists and bankers whose job it is grow the economy make more money by sending jobs overseas and playing high stakes gambling schemes with our money.

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TomCat said...

Hi Beach. First thanks for your visit and comment at Politics Plus. I've added you to our blogroll.

On topic, I lived in Denver many years ago, and if you were where I think you were, I used to hunt antelope in the area. I have come across several similar ruins and wondered how they survived the bleak desolation of their surroundings. You have made that scene come alive in a truly masterful way. Major kudos.

Doc said...

There was an abandoned log cabin next to my home growing up that we would explore as kids. There was a sideboard with old pictures in it. Pictures of tough, weathered people who farmed the valley. Pictures of a favorite dog or a prize winning bull were common. They house didn't have electric or running water. The outhouse still stood out back, but barely and the path to the crick was still there where they drew their water. Who they were or where they went, I'll never know, but I'd be willing to bet they wouldn't have cursed someone for holding up the line at Starbucks and they damn sure had a lot of backbone.

Perhaps we have lost that, or at least forgotten it. And though their names have been lost, their spirit does not remain unsung.

Thanks BB, from all the folks who couldn't tell you themselves.


MadMike said...

Excellent read my friend and I agree with you...

P.S. That Lowrence post is spam. I got a couple of them last week.

Beach Bum said...

Lowrence: No problem, added you to the list.

Tomcat: Welcome and come back often. I saw a National Geographic issue once where someone explored abandoned homes/farms in the Midwest. That was even sadder, some looked like the people just suddenly left with very personal items left behind.

Doc: Who they were or where they went, I'll never know, but I'd be willing to bet they wouldn't have cursed someone for holding up the line at Starbucks and they damn sure had a lot of backbone.

Damn straight and I saw something very much like that recently.

Madmike: Its funny really in a dark way. Those who worked so hard to make a real living now just to be forgotten as compared to those celebrities whose only talent is family money and a good agent who seemingly will never go away.

lime said...

what a step into history. thanks for sharing this with us. it really is food for thought and imagination and worthy of honor.