Contributed by Mary Zirin and produced by Judith B. Glad and Susan Stafford.

'Ad Astra Per Aspera'

by Roscoe Fleming

Photograph of Roscoe FlemingBorn in South Dakota in 1895, Roscoe Fleming became a well-known news reporter and editor, including being a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and columnist for the Denver Post. Mr. Fleming noted that most of his poems were not so much written, as accreted. The beloved poem "Kansas" grew just that way -- in fact, presented here is a version which was revised for re-publication in 1957. It is a classic description of this land and her peoples, and we are very grateful to Mr. Fleming's daughter, Mary Zirin, for her gracious permission to include it in KanColl for everyone to enjoy.

Rock Creek Crossing in Kansas

I had long thought of writing a poem about Kansas,

That lively centenarian,

"The exact geographical center of the United States"

And, as it sometimes has seemed, the psychic center

The vortex where all our clashing cultures met.

Yes, about old Kansas that once stretched westward
     right up the long slope to the horizon where the
     Rockies slice off the sky.

Whose motto was, and is: "To the Stars, Through

Or, as we say it nowadays,
"To Boom, Through Bust."

I thought this project over for years.
But how do you bring the realities of the sodhouse,
     sunbonnet civilization,
Of people living apart and always alone on the limit-
     less prairie, with the heat-waves writhing against
     the far horizon in endless obeisance to the over-
     lord unforgiving sun;
How can you bring such scenes
To the beneficiaries of the air-conditioned plexiglass
And the three-car garage?

How do you bring home to these latter the reality of
      the hells of separate loneliness
In which so many Kansans lived until they cracked,
     especially farm wives with none to whom to talk
     all through the eternity of days, with the sun and
     the prairie and the overarching sky watching,
     watching, always watching through the windows?

How do you tell about this to a generation that in
     five minutes can get New York on the telephone
     from any Kansas farmhouse, or vice versa?
Or has but to snap on the TV to be in instantaneous
     touch with the world, at least with the world as
     fashioned on Madison Avenue or Wilshire Boulevard,
That world which, regardless of merit or the lack of
     it, seems to be the people's choice?

How can you tell of the endless alternation of cloud-
     burst and of drouth, as if God were fatigue-testing
     the tough mettle of these people even to the breaking-
     point and beyond?
Though even the thunderstorms brought something at
     least to talk about,
So that Kansans boasted pridefully of such blue-black
     bellowing sockdolagers as were never seen any-
     where else on earth,
With lightning that seemed to split your shrinking soul
     to its very center.

An old-timer told of sitting in his homestead shack
And hearing the dry lightning hit his just-strung fence
Traveling the barbed-wire, and exploding the posts

Sending the splinters zinging like deadly arrows.
He said he thought first: "It's my turn next"; and sec-
     ond, that this was why Eastern Kansans fenced
     with osage-orange hedges,
(Though it wasn't; they just didn't have anything else
     to fence with.)
Such storms grew often into tornadoes
So that every shack or sodhouse had its cyclone cellar
And afterward little rain-lakes might twinkle briefly
     on the bosom of the blossoming prairie, loud with
     the cheerful piping of the frogs that appeared
     miraculously from nowhere, as if set down there
     by God's own hand,
While the prairie-larks sang His praises.

In such a time
The sod roofs bloomed as gaily, too
As slanting flower-beds,
And had to be patched and repatched against the leaks
     until they grew so thick
That it wouldn't rain in the house the same day of
     rain, but dripped all next day.
How the good land would produce in this good season!
     But the next year, or even the late summer, might bring
     a hell during which the prairie lay lifeless under
     relentless blazing sun and sky, when the grass-
     hopper devoured what the drouth might have left,
     even as the drouth itself devoured desire and will
     and ambition out of a man, leaving only his dried-
     out lifeless husk.

(Entries in an Iowa diary, 1852:
"Wendell and Susy were married today, and set out for
     Kansas to make their fortune."
Four months later;
"Wendell and Susy got back from Kansas today. They
     say that it is a territory which will never be con-
     quered by the white man.")

To a woman who told how her father laid tarpaper
     over the sheathing, then covered all with sod
     against the wind,
An old-timer courteously replied:
"Lady, your folks must have been late, and rich.
We went to the draw and cut willows by the bundle,
And spread them side by side across the poles we had
     for rafters,
Then laid our sod on them, grass side down.
Folks who were particular, or who had money enough
Tacked muslin to the underside for a ceiling,
For others, the willows had to do."

Kansans once survived by endless slavery to the horse
Or rather, horse and man survived alike by endless
     slavery to the plow,
One hitched to it at one end, and the other at the other,
The only difference being that the one pushed and
     the other pulled, as it were.
But how are you going to tell about that to a genera-
     tion that sits on a cushioned tractor-seat under a
     parasol against the sun; and, to alleviate the
     monotony, tunes in dance-music from Long Island;
Then turns on the floodlight to bed the tractor down
     in the machine-shop and to check the REA-pow-
     ered electric pump,
Dreaming the while of the movie later, with Marilyn
     or Grace,
And never sees a horse, save when the TV carries The
     Derby or the Preakness?
Why, did you see that Ward's
Doesn't even carry work-harness any more in its gen-
     eral catalog?
Then there was the reiterated flashing of the corn-
     knife in the sun
And the tickle of sweat always in the eyes as you stag-
     gered to the shock with your rustling recurrent
And the maddening itch of the tassels sifting down
     your back,
Inevitably in a place you couldn't reach to scratch,
Or, if you could, there was another and unreachable
     itch the next minute.
How do you tell about that, though, to a generation
     that sits on a marching machine which chomps
     into silage two rows of corn at a time, its steel
     jaws chewing with the strength of forty horses?

Then there was the hay-wagon receiving the bundles
     of wheat tossed up by sweating, ever-moving
     human arms that were still, as from history's dawn,
     the most essential part of the machinery of harvest,
The bundles had to be tossed again to the platform
     to be stuffed by other human arms into the wide
     roaring mouth of the red threshing-machine,
Powered by the old steam traction-engine attached to
     the thresher by the ever-moving, over-and-under
     umbilical belt;
But how can those imagine this, who sit on the cush-
     ioned quarter-deck of a combine that moves as
     majestically as a ship through the waving golden
     sea and devours an acre of wheat every few min-
     utes, flowing the grain in a pale-golden stream into
     the pacing trucks, and scattering the blond straw
     to the hot winds again?


Once Kansans ate pie-melon pies at their church soci-
     ables, because apples would not grow in the sum-
     mer's heat and dust, and the Arctic cold of winter;
     yet the people were too poor to buy apples from
     far away.
But how do you tell about that, to a generation which
     has only to pop a frozen bakery pie from the cold-
     box into the oven, and withdraw it half an hour
     later with the hot juices bubbling out of the brown
(Not as good as a pie-melon pie, say the old-timers; but
     how are their descendants to know?)

That lady there, shopping in the air-conditioned five-
     and-ten for pastel rolls that won't clash with the
     colors in her bathroom,
Do you think she'd be interested in hearing how the
     Sears-Sawbuck catalogue served her great-grand-
     mother's family for light reading all winter, until
     the next one came,
And then performed its last, humblest, but necessary
Giving up its substance leaf by leaf,
Hanging to a string in the backhouse?
("The second year on the homestead
Our entire crop consisted of 33 bushels of wheat,
     and one baby.")

And how did they cook without wood, and keep warm
     throughout the blizzards?
Well, there were millions of buffalo-chips and cow-
     chips all over the prairie;
Sun-dried, it seemed they lasted forever.
It was part of prairie boyhood, and of prairie girlhood,
To gather these into piles, handy for Pa to come along
     with the farm-wagon and the big scoop.
I heard a lady from Kansas say once,
Ignoring her city-bred granddaughter's slightly queasy
"I have never since eaten a cake as good as those my
     mother baked
With a cow-chip fire, in the old cast-iron range on
     the farm."

("My mother and I stood all night under the ridge-log,
     the one dry spot in the house.
I remember that finally the cow-chips stacked by the
     stove began to float one by one toward the door,
     like a flotilla of black turtles.")

And once there was a Kansas of prairie villages,
Each grown gaunt and shabby before its time like the
     prairie wives; each shrinking against its lofty grain-
     elevator like a huddle of chicks against the mother,
     shrinking from the endless inimical silence and the space.
The roads were bottomless mud or choking dust by
The train that grew once daily out of the prairie
     and was swallowed up receding remotely into it,
     was the only link with the world beyond, if indeed
     there was a world beyond, which to the village
     people did not seem likely,
Their only contact with that world the weekly Star
     picked up at the village postoffice before R.F.D.

Now all these villages, those that are left, have grown
     their own shade in which the air-conditioned
     houses hide from the sun,
So that you might as well live in New England, save
     perhaps in the deep summer,
And the people can hop into their convertibles after
     the heat of the day, and within the hour be among
     the multitudinous neon signs, flashing dizzily on
     and off,
Advertising beer, genuine Chicago steaks, Marilyn
     Monroe, and all the other evidences and embellish-
     ments of a high civilization.

(. . . I remember playing hide-and-seek in the tall
     grass, then the frightening smell of smoke on the
Mother came running and herded us into the cyclone-
     cellar, as frantic as the hen brooding her chicks at
     sight of the hawk;
Then the scared team lunging against the bit, as
     Father plowed a firebreak around and around the
     cabin . . .")

And how do you tell this generation of the gaunt-
     cheeked brush-arbor preacher, his eyes blazing with
     sure foreknowledge of the wrath to come for these
     sinful before him; with his authentic inside infor-
     mation of the hatred his God bore for the sin and
     for the sinner alike,
With his electric and communicated half-horror, half-
     fascination for the hell that will blaze alway,
     crackling the flesh of sinners for all eternity?

Yet from out there beyond the rim of the arbor, in
     the dark,
Came stifled giggles and whisperings punctuating his
     most passionate periods, his thundering denuncia-
     tions of the flesh and the Devil, his appeals to flee
     from the wrath of a jealous God and seek salva-
     tion ere it became forever too late;
So that cynics said there were more souls made around
     camp meetings than were ever saved there--

But how to you make all that convincing
Now that Kansas preachers run as plump, placid and
     social-minded as preachers anywhere?

("None of us had much, and some had nothing
But what we had, we shared. No door was ever locked. We banded together against loneliness, we few lost in
     that vast land.
Oh, what good times we had!")

And how can you convince this generation, whose
     children ride in neat swift punctual buses to mil-
     lion-dollar consolidated schools.
Of the reality of the shabby little schoolhouses, some
     with sod roofs, that once stood so far out there
     alone on the wide prairie,
(Shabby, but they meant more sacrifice by the peo-
     ple than all the million-dollar beauties of today)
Choking hot in spring and in fall, closed for planting
     and for harvest so that the children might help
     out at home,
Freezing cold in winter for those left outside the
     narrow circle around the little stove whose pot-
     belly glowed cherry-red,
And even those inside the circle toasted on one side,
     froze on the other;
With the desks carved and re-carved by the jack-
     knives from Sears or Monkey Ward,
In the hands of succeeding generations of farm boys
     seeking in vain to avoid the boredom of learning.
Where the young schoolmarm, prepared for her high
     and holy task by a high-school diploma and three
     months at Normal
Struggled with the relentless dust, stirring it around
     each morning in a sort of futile fury,
And struggled day-long with the relentless innocent
     bumptious ignorance of seven grades of prairie
Waiting at last only to get married, even to a widower
     with four of his own,
(And there were always plenty of those about, look-
     ing for fresh strong young wives);
Willing to undertake the struggle to bring up four
     children and those not her own, though her own
     always came along,
Just to get away from the everlasting demands of forty?

("Though a woman can starve for lack of a flower,
     even though bread be plenty;
And a woman can starve for lack of a word, even
     though there be love.")

And how do you tell of the old Kansas character, with
     its long molding between the opposed hammer
     and anvil of hard reality and of ruth,
Divided against itself from birth, and sometimes, it
     seemed, even before,
Which could always be induced to contribute willingly
     to foreign missions even from its own scant store,
     so induced by the unbearable thought of the heath-
     en sitting in darkness and despair, and doomed if
     only through ignorance, to Hell,
Far from the bright reality of the Kansas faith?

How do you convince these moderns that they are
     Kansans only because their great-grandfathers were
     too contrary to quit, and much too stubborn to
     take advice,
Or, in some instances, unable to go back whence they
A man once told how, back in Indiana when he was
     thinking of homesteading it on the far frontier,
He talked to a fellow who'd tried it, but was now
     back for good,
Tucking his feet under his mammy's table three times
     a day
And waiting to succeed to the farm.

"Kansas, eh?" the fellow said. "All you really need
     to take along to Kansas
Is a lookin' glass and a rockin'-chair. Then you can set
     and rock, and watch yourself starve to death."
The man added thoughtfully: "Pretty good advice, too;
     maybe the best I ever got."
But I took notice that he was still in Kansas,
And not exactly starving to death, either.

("Our home was dug so deeply into the side of a bank
That most of our roof was the top of the bank.
When dirt began to sift down on the floor in the house,
     my mother would say to me:
'Clarence, go out and chase the cows off the roof.'")

That Kansas character fought a small but bloody civil
     war of its own, long before the big one,
Led by the burning-eyed old John Brown, a prophet
     straight from the Old Testament;
But now it rests in triumph, seeing almost nowhere in
     the state where a man's race or religion really
     handicap him,
Save perhaps in getting into the more expensive sub-
     divisions, and the better hotels and clubs; and
     maybe into some of the higher-class movies, motels
     and churches,
Or in its remote southern villages, where no one ever
     goes anyway.


It seemed that Kansans had to be larger and stronger
     than life, even to survive in that old Kansas,
Let alone to subdue it.
So that they put on pride like an overcoat that is
     donned to hide the patches beneath.
As when the haughty princess asked Dorothy in Oz:
"Are you of royal blood, by any chance?"
Dorothy tilted her small snub nose just one tilt higher
     than the princess',
Her sonsy face glowing with honest pride,
And answered in her forthright prairie twang:
"Better than that, Ma'am! I come from Kansas!"

And so the state grew characters, as well as character:
John Brown, Jim Lane, John J. Ingalls who once called
     Kansas the navel of the nation;
Sockless Jerry Simpson, Edmund G. Ross, Carry Na-
     tion, Victor Murdock, Arthur Capper, Charley
Mary Elizabeth Lease, she who adjured Kansans to
     raise more hell and less corn;
And William Allen White, Bill White of Emporia,
Who began by demanding that Kansas raise more
     corn and less hell, but ended by raising more and
     hotter hell than anybody.

Kansas has, however, lost so many of her sons and
There used to be a saying in California and Colorado
That the smartest people come from Kansas--fast.
One such said: "I came from Illinois with my seed-
     corn in a pouch
And seedcorn was precious in those days;
I chopped holes with an axe in the dry sod, planted
     my corn, and waited for rain.
Come fall, and it hadn't rained yet,
Nary drop.
So I dug up my seedcorn, not a kernel sprouted,
And put it back in the pouch
And headed back to Illinois."

("I had ridden to town to take my eighth-grade exam-
The Northern Lights cast a silent shimmering curtain
Through which the stars shown down;
There was no sound save the clop-clop of my horse's
     hooves upon the road.
We took comfort in each other's company
For we might have been the only living things upon
     the planet
Save that far away shone a warm yellow star, the light
of home . . .")

But how do you tell today of those old-time Kansans
So flint-jawed against wrong as they saw it, and so
     strong for the right, again as they saw it;
So willing to sacrifice the heathen's body to save his
In the true old Puritanic tradition
And often even willing to sacrifice their own?
What do you tell of them?
Or even relate convincingly how they once went Popul-
     ist almost to the last man and woman.
Finally goaded beyond endurance by the Four Horse-
     men of old Kansas: Drouth, Grasshoppers, Rail-
     roads and Bankers?
(Let us ignore, as general aberrations shared by others
     than Kansans, the way they smeared with yellow
     paint the homes of people with Germanic names
     in World War I; and the Klan madness of the

For on the modern Kansan's neck the fiery Populist
     glow has subsided long since to the well-barbered
     rosy pink of prosperity.
And he basks in the supreme belief that all is right
     with Kansas and the world
As long as the right party controls Congress and the
     Legislature in Topeka,
And as long as the dust bowl can always be recon-
     quered again, and again and again,
By simply using a little more caution the next time
     the rains come and you can plow it up,
Even if it does seem each time that the desert has
     gnawed a little farther into Kansas' living flank
Like a coyote working on a trapped heifer.
For, friend, are you for progress around here, or ain't

And as long as there's a big payroll at Wichita
Turning out bombers to convert the modern heathen
     to the American way, the Kansas way,
If they finally show they won't be converted by any
     other means.

How are you going to do all this?
I think the most impossible part would be
To explain convincingly the way the eyes of old
     gaffers from Kansas light up when they meet
     each other, and invariably begin:
"Those were the good days--remember . . . ?"

And continue,
Of the silent immense night so full of stars;
Of the dawn-lit prairie where the sunflowers stand
     on tiptoe looking toward the East, their golden
     heads worshipfully bowed for the rising of their
Of sloshing dusty and burning feet in the cool stock-
     tank to the creaking rhythm of the windmill
     above, as its vanes slat and careen in the hot
Of that bright fish, the big one, dashing out at last
     from the deep water under the cutbank like a bit
     of sun glinting through the clear stream, to take
     your hook;
Of the sudden commotion above and behind the
     muslin ceiling, and the astonished bullsnake fall-
     ing thump! onto the dinner table amid the clatter-
     ing dishes . . .

And so on and on,
While their non-Kansan descendants or relatives yawn,
     and glance significantly by vainly at the clock
Getting on for midnight.

For we all of us as we grow older, become emigrants
     or exiles from the past as from another country,
     now islanded in time and forever receding,
And today's children are as impatient of hearing about
     lost and long-gone days and ways
As America's children tire of hearing the homesick
     old-country tales told by their grandparents who
     came from another land.

*     *     *     *

So for all these reasons here given, which seem to
     me much more than sufficient,
I have finally given up my project of writing a poem
     about Kansas,
Old Kansas, that once stretched to that farthest blue
     rim where the Rockies saw off the sky.

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