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.