He Could Sing That Good
September 27, 2005
Driving into Hutchinson from the east you see an armada of eight gigantic grain elevators lying at anchor at the far edge of the tree line. Each is a long tall rack of silos held at the top by a bridgework and connected to a rectangular tower, rising alongside like the bridge of a ship. From the highway they look like the largest battle group of aircraft carriers ever assembled, as if there might be a good-sized bay on the other side of the city. As if you were arriving at some inland San Diego Naval Station.
It’s an interesting illusion, out there in the middle of Kansas. You get up close to one and tilt your head way back to look up at all the huge white concrete tubes – this one had 24 silos and others had even more – and wonder how in the heck are we ever gonna eat all this? Seems like enough storage for all the world’s wheat and corn and beans for generations, and there’s a lot more just down the road. Depressing, somehow, to think there are that many people in the world. Makes you feel like just one of the termites.
We did a show at the Kansas State Fair. It’s not all that different from the Minnesota version except it’s not as big as ours, a point of pride with some of us but not that big a deal to others. The very long covered grandstand faces a dirt-track racing oval, whereon sat the removable stage. Their track is still used; ours no longer has racing. This too says something about Minnesota.
The real surprise in Hutchinson is the Underground Salt Museum; it’s not opened just yet but it will be, and it will make this the only city in America with a museum 650 feet beneath it. They are still mining down there, as they have been for the last 107 years, in one of the world’s largest salt mines. The caverns are huge, with ceilings up to seventeen feet high; strung together they would run for 67 miles. The climate is stable, as you might guess, and thousands of original Hollywood movie film reels are stored there. It’s one of eight active salt mines in Kansas; they also mine limestone and gypsum in the state and they used to mine lead, zinc and coal as well. I saw working oil pumps in the sorghum fields along US 50 on the way in. One assumes the oil lies beneath the salt, or somewhere well off to the side of it.
It’s a city of 41,000 people living on very broad streets, the downtown buildings spread out in a way that says their pioneers had seen London and New York and they didn’t want anything like that. All those wagons and horses and people jammed up so tight you couldn’t raise an arm to wave at somebody, as if you’d ever see someone you knew, which you never would; and the whole mess of you all smelling like you were calf-deep in a corral somewhere. So this isn’t like that. There are plenty of high-rise buildings here, probably as much tall construction per capita as anyplace, but the skyscrapers are for the crops. None have a revolving restaurant at the top, nor an observation deck with coin-operated telescopes and little steps for the kids to get up on and look out over all that horizontal farmland.
And in central Kansas, they have the horizontal thing down. There is a stunning amount of flatness here, which would help explain why they not only have an underground museum but also an outer space one, a Cosmosphere, with real Mercury and Gemini space capsules and the original Apollo 13 command module. There is a planetarium, and rockets and spy planes and more Russian space gear than anybody has but the Russians, including a Voskhod capsule and a Soyuz descent craft.
And there seems to be, along with salt and the grain and the high sky, an abundance of whimsy in the state, at least judging from the map. It’s peppered with small towns with good woman names, like Delia, Viola, Pearl, Pauline, Eudora, Isabel, Lorraine, Loretta, Lydia, Amy, Anna, Sylvia, Rose and Juniata; and male towns like Leon, Clyde, Le Roy, Lucas, Lawrence; Arnold, Studley and Ringo, and Vernon and Virgil. And Odin and Verdi.
Others are called Admire, Liberty, Eureka, Industry, Home, Hope, Paradise, Friend, Zenith, Dispatch, Sedan, Tribune, Soldier, Bazaar, Severance, Speed, Stark, Neutral, Liberal, Ransom, Republic, Gas, Haggard, and Gross. And there is a place named Beagle, along with Kismet, Cuba, Emporia, Rock, and Radium; and Trading Post and Xenia. You can find Half Mound, Pen Dennis, Pretty Prairie, Shallow Water, Bird City and Strong City. Olathe, Jarbolo, Kickapoo, Mingo, Modoc, Narka, Zenda, Zook, Scipio, Iuka, Skiddy.
As appealing as these names are, it does make a person speculate what some of the citizens call themselves. Skiddyanders, maybe, and Kickapooners, Leonistas and Pen Dennisites. Bazaarnians and Jarbolonians.
It’s your first day in the college dorm in the big city and someone asks where you’re from and you have to say, “I’m from Speed, Kansas.” Or “I’m from Gross.” “Um, my home town is Narka. . . it’s in Kansas.” A sense of humor would be a handy thing to take along if you were from a place with a name like Gas or Studley. Either that or a good counteroffensive. For example:
“Zook? Zook, Kansas? What kinda name is that for a town? Zook? You gotta be kiddin’.”
“What, you never heard of Zook? Where you been, anyway? Everybody knows about Zook. Zook is like, very cool. Zook is like a synonym for cool. You look up cool in the dictionary and there’s a picture of Zook. Zook is an Indian word that means cool. You’re the first person I ever met in my whole life that hadn’t heard of Zook. Everybody the freakin’ world knows about Zook.”
I left the Hutchinson Fairgrounds the instant the trailer doors were closed and locked after the show on Saturday. It was a bit after nine and I was on a mission to catch the Vikings opening game against the Buccaneers. It’s 642 miles to the yard and 20 more to the house and I had fifteen hours until noon. I’m past the years when I could take off late at night and drive eleven hours straight through so my plan was to drive until sleepy and catch a few Zs in the sleeper and still make it to the television by kickoff.
I missed it by four plays: they lost the coin toss, they kicked off, they stuffed the first play and then they gave up a 72-yard touchdown pass. After that, they didn’t stuff much of anything and it got quite ugly. I could have stayed in Kansas overnight, had dinner and hung out with the crew; could have slept in a king size hotel bed, taken a leisurely drive home and arrived about the time the misery was ending. (It got even worse the next Sunday against Cincinnati, but they seemed to right the ship yesterday against the first homeless team in the history of the league, the very game New Orleans Saints. But to be honest, I don’t know too many folks who care about this football stuff.)
Saturday night we did our home opener at the Fitzgerald Theater, followed by the traditional meatloaf dinner and street dance. I was lucky enough to end up later at a table in an old St Paul establishment with members of our band and the High Flyers from Austin. A story was told about the fondly remembered guitar legend Chet Atkins, not only a fabulous player but a gentleman and humorist of the first water. If you just say Chet in a circle of musicians, everyone knows who you mean.
Anyway, he had done some first studio recordings and the producers were greatly impressed. “You can sure play the heck out of that thing, son,” they said, “Can you sing?”
“Nope. Can’t sing.”
“Not even a little? You must be able to sing a little bit.”
“Nossir. Can’t sing a lick. Never have.”
“Gosh, that’s a shame,” one said.
“Yeh,” said the other, “Y’know, Merle Travis made a whole lot of money off that hit he had with ‘Sixteen Tons’.”
“Oh,” Chet said, “Well, I can sing that good.”