The sky was still light on this soft summer evening. Children ran down to the pond with parent warily in tow to feed the ducks, or played catch with their dads nearby, or took great delight in climbing (and hanging from) the low branches of crepe myrtle trees. Couples walked along the path around the park's large pond, and an old Dixieland favorite floated on the breeze from the bandstand.
On the news that night: more about Littleton, the bombs found inside the school building, the dead, the injured ... the children who had gone to school that day. More about gun control -- to save our children; about Hollywood movies and video games -- to protect our children; about putting God back in the classroom -- to keep our children from murdering each other.
It is tempting to say that something like Littleton could never happen in the place where the band played in the park on a summer evening -- but that would be wrong. A scant half hour away from the park, a young boy had gone to school and shot and killed another boy, over a girlfriend. Only minutes away, a high school student had gone home, killed his parents, and tried to kill his brother and sisters with a hatchet.
Something is very wrong.
At KanColl, we have often been surprised by the parallels of the past with the present. The O.J. trial? Take a look at The Death of Jesse Turner. The impeachment proceedings? Read a couple of chapters of In His Steps. But nothing quite like Littleton or the many other places these days that have, on a lesser scale, been the site of violence commited by children against children, can be found. Howard Chase, Red River comes close -- this book, published in 1918, expresses concern about the bad influences on children in the movies, boys associating in gangs, young girls headed for "trouble," and so on. But nothing quite like what we have today.
Not that childhood back then was always easy. Percy Ebbutt for example ran away from an abusive father in Kansas, traveling by himself all the way to England while still very young. You will find stories in Orphan Trains of Kansas about children who were split up because homes could not be found for brothers and sisters together, and in some cases children who were adopted simply for free labor. Children on the frontier often were in families where luxuries that we take for granted today, like fresh oranges, were in short supply, and hard work at an early age was expected and even essential to the family's survival.
Yet we don't find stories like Littleton. Why?
Some answers emerge from the memories recorded in KanColl.
Wint Sipe for example recalls in the memoir he wrote, "In the following days [after a visit as a young boy with one of the more wealthy families of the neighborhood], after careful thought, I decided that wealth and happiness were synonymous. To check my reasoning one evening, I explained it to Mother and concluded with my decision. She asked if I could remember the story told in the poem 'The Mansion Over the Way.' When I said I did and briefly told it, she explained the poem to me. As I remember, this was when I first began to realize what happiness was and what I had that money could not furnish. I have come to realize that as a child I was what would be described today as under-privileged. But then I had no way to figure this for myself and no one told me, so I spent a very happy childhood."
James Stafford recalls, "One summer after I had learned to fish in the Central Park Lakes I woke up on a Sunday morning. I told my mother I didn't feel too well and thought I should stay home from Sunday school (at the Central Congregational Church). Mother said all right. I stayed in bed until after Sunday school would have started and then told mother that I felt a whole lot better and that I thought I would go fishing. She said, all right but you should wait until Sunday school is over. She knew what I was up to. And I knew she knew. And she knew that I knew that she knew. A lesson learned and no cross words or confrontation. This was very typical of my mother. I not only loved her for her unconditional love but she was my best friend as well."
In his book, Do Tell: The Early Years, Don B. Dale writes of his childhood: "At some point during this period, around the age of 6 and 7, my older brother and I decided to run away. I really don't remember why. It could have been a spat with the folks, but more likely we had just finished some adventure book and were ready to see the world on our own. The latter scenario is most probable because our Mother, I recall, even helped fix some food to tide us over until we got to our destination. Don't be too curious about where we were heading, I was very likely following my brother Jed's lead, and he never knew where he was going. The homestead, a two acre spread with a three story, double-brick, insulated home situated on one corner, was located on the west side of Garden City, Kansas along old Highway 50. At the time there was nothing but fields of corn and wheat on small farms stretching north all the way to the Nebraska border.
Don also tells of a trip to the high school principal's office, "It was really a choice of his calling our parents and having the world come to an end, or accepting his punishment for not only that day's transgression but a litany of others as well. Some one had been keeping track of each and every bad deed I had ever done.
Banker F. J. Atwood reflected in the May 1935 issue of Progress in Kansas: "To my mother I am chiefly indebted for the basic principles of morality and religion. To my father I owe a sense of humor that has helped me in many trying situations. My father also endowed me a degree of common sense. (I regret that, too often, the quanitity has been adequate).
Kate Bowen wrote in 1926 of a Christmas on the Kansas prairie: "We had moved from Richardson Co Neb. to Hodgeman Co Ks in the early spring of 1885 and brought a family of five little girls and as Christmas drew near we realized we had brought them away from many things they had always enjoyed at that season of the year. We realized it was up to us to find the best substitute we could. That fall the first district school had began in the little school house! --- which was of sod --- and we had a good little Sunday School every Sunday afternoon and preaching every two weeks. Mr. Reed was our Superintendant and it was a union school. We met there to take steps to have a Christmas tree and entertainment We counted our pennies and made our plans, sent Mr. Will Burns to Dodge City with our money and a list of oranges, candy, green tissue paper (as near the shade of evergreen as he could find). We got a good sized hack berry tree- its top reached the ceiling- and cut the paper in long strips half a finger length and fringed each strip as deep as possible, leaving only a plain margin to wrap around the bare limbs of the tree. We wrapped the whole tree and you who did not see it have no idea how pretty it looked. After the popcorn was strung and festooned around it and oranges fastened on and dozens of little pink mosquitoe netting bags filled with candy and hazel nuts and a pretty red apple for each pupil (the later Were contributed by families who had had them sent from Richardson Co) with an occasional tin horn, picture book and the little school house lighted by the biggest and best lamps the country side afforded. I want to tell you it was a pretty sight. We had a really fine program."
The motto of the 1931 Ford High School senior class was "Push, Pull, or Get Out of the Way."
Julie Schossow says of her grandmother, "She seemed to always keep me busy and we spent many hours putting together jigsaw puzzles of square dancers, quilting bees, and ice cream socials. She also taught me how to play Gin Rummy. My hands were so small I couldn't hold all of my cards, so I would run back and forth between hands to check my cards laying on the kitchen table, and she was always so patient. She also taught me how to crochet a chain that I would unravel only to start it again. I loved to watch her piece a quilt together, and sew on her treadle sewing machine. She also enjoyed making braided rugs. Another of my favorite pastimes was to string button necklaces and bracelets from the many brightly colored buttons she kept in a large old cookie tin."
And Elfriede Rowe noted in 1961: "Before the advent of the dial system in Lawrence in 1955, the telephone operator was an unsung heroine. She was the source of all information. She would give you the time of day, or the temperature. If you heard the fire bell ringing or the Wild Cat whistle at the water works, you would pick up the receiver and ask the operator where the fire was, or why was the whistle blowing. If you tried to get a friend on the phone and the operator reported the line was busy, you asked her to call you back when they had finished.
Seems that the one thing that was different then was how folks cared about each other. In Kansas, people lived largely in small communities; it was hard to be ignored or forgotten. The harsh life of the farm and the Plains taught them solid values and these values were considered normal. People took time for each other. Families, which may have included both parents or sadly only one, pulled together and looked after each other. There were exceptions of course, just as there are exceptions to what is considered normal today. But if someone wrote today, as Ironquill did back in 1896:
would we think this is naive? Would we consider it trite and outdated? Would we shake our heads and say, "Oh no, it's not what you do, it's who you know"? Today childhood is very different from what it was years ago ... and we seem to have lost something very precious in that process: the children.
Something is wrong. And it's doubtful that legislators, or teachers, or well-intentioned reformers, can set it right for us. The people who can do that are us. You and I. In our families, our communities, our businesses, our lives. It's a tall order. But a wise man reminded me recently, if every person brings a little grain of sand, before long you've built a beach. You might consider today what grain of sand you can offer: is there a young neighbor who needs some attention? a person in your community who needs a word of encouragement or support? a way to set an example by taking responsibility, and doing the right thing? It may not seem like much to do, in the face of all these problems -- but when caring about each other this way becomes normal, when the values our grandparents grew up with become normal, then we may find that we have gone a long way towards setting things right.