As a prologue to this story my short story, Working the Farm, introduces the characters found in this novel:
She had known for months that this day was coming. Yet, now that it had arrived, she felt unprepared. That was a strange feeling for her. Brenda normally was the epitome of preparedness. But today, as she was getting ready, she felt like an actress who had forgotten her lines, and there was no one in the wings to prompt her.
Daddy had stoically announced to the family one day, that he had been to the doctor about his persistent cough and the doctor’s diagnosis had not been good. He had almost been nonchalant about it. But that was Daddy’s way.
“No use crying over spilled milk,” had always been his attitude whenever he or the family had a setback — whenever circumstance had gotten in the way of his plans.
When the flood had destroyed half of the wheat he had planted in the good bottom land, he understood the irony of it. The wheat had been planted in that field precisely because it was so close to the river, and the river had made it extraordinarily fertile. Then the river came out of its banks to destroy it.
He felt the pain of having a lot of hard work, time, and money lost. But Chet Morrison knew no other way than to just keep going. That was one of the things that Brenda had admired most about her daddy. He would always hang tough.
Brenda had watched him and emulated him over the years, and now it was her turn to hang tough — for the family — for Momma, and for her brothers.
Today the Morrisons went to Clancy Funeral Home to say goodbye to Chet, their patriarch and their beacon. He had died quietly in his sleep. Brenda and Momma (Chet’s wife, Gracie) were relieved that his pain had not lingered. They were grateful, too, that the medical bills would not continue to mount.
Though they arrived in plenty of time, they were not the first people in the chapel. Gracie’s sister, Helen, and her husband Matt were seated in the third row near the aisle. Chet’s longtime friend, Carlton McClure was sitting across the aisle from them. He acknowledged Gracie with an almost imperceptible nod of his head, and likewise paid homage to Brenda and her brother, Alan, as they came into view.
An atmosphere of reverence and respect had been achieved in the large room by the attention to detail given by the funeral director and his staff. There was soft organ music playing hymns and the cut flowers which had been placed all around the casket and viewing area rendered sweet aromas, perceptible from the first few rows of the pews. The tile floors were immaculate and the bench seats were polished to perfection. Sunlight was diffusing through the stained glass on the front wall, lending a peaceful aura to the chapel.
Bobby and Billy, the twins, and the youngest of the siblings, were nervously fiddling with their printed programs and whispering loudly to each other. Neither had ever known someone who had died, and the fact that the departed was their father made them all-the-more uneasy. They were clearly fretful and kept tugging at their suit jackets, pulling at their starched shirt collars, and twirling their ties.
Roger, now on the cusp of adulthood, who had been named after one of Chet’s brothers, and Alan, who was now the man-of-the-house, were also uncomfortable in their dress attire. But they were able to stifle their inclination to squirm and fidget. Although their normal attire was a cotton or denim shirt and blue jeans — appropriate for doing their farm chores — they comported themselves well.
Gracie seemed to be sleep-walking, unable to navigate the room or her emotions, so Brenda led her and the family to the first row on the left where they quickly took their seats. Gracie instinctively continued holding on to Brenda's arm after they sat down.
“Why is the casket lid open, Momma?” Bobby asked. Gracie looked at him but couldn’t answer, so Brenda whispered, “We’re all going to get one last look at Daddy.” Bobby winced and crinkled his nose in disbelief. It didn’t seem appropriate, to look at a dead body. That seemed to violate some taboo and he whispered, “Gross!” to no one in particular.
When the service concluded, and guests were starting to leave, Gracie began thawing out and regained her customary composure. She remarked that there were more people in attendance than she had expected. “It seems like half the county came to pay their respects to Chet.” Brenda agreed with a nod, and Gracie continued. “Reverend Waters gave a very nice sermon and Carlton’s eulogy was very nice. He really painted a good picture of Chet, didn’t he?”
In his eulogy, Carlton had spoken of the many times he had spent with Chet and his brothers, shooting pool, playing poker, and — especially — chasing their dreams on the baseball diamond. The eight Morrison boys had grown up loving baseball, and as young adults, Chet and his seven brothers (ages 12 to 22) had formed a semi-pro team.
The three McClure boys had been asked to join the team to bolster the defense on the left side of the field. They filled the key positions of left field, third base, and shortstop.
In the early 1900’s in rural Kansas, baseball was a very popular diversion. There were no professional baseball teams for people to watch, so the many fans of the game flocked to high school or semi-pro games to satisfy their hunger for baseball.
Many followed the Kansas City Athletics and listened to every game on the radio. A common constituent of the River City soundscape on a weekend afternoon was an Athletics radio broadcast wafting through the neighborhoods. It was an ecumenical experience, not favoring any particular group or sector.
Becoming a player for the Athletics was the dream of nearly every farm boy in the county, and they grew up thinking baseball, talking baseball, and playing sandlot ball whenever they could — each boy pretending to be his favorite player: “Enos Slaughter steps to the plate… here’s the pitch… Slaughter swings! And it’s out’a here! Home Run!”
One thing nearly all these young athletes had in common was that they worked on their family’s farm. This hard work tended to produce strong, lean lads who could run fast and throw hard. It was nearly perfect conditioning for the demands of serious baseball. But farm work also dictated how much time they could spare to pursue their dreams. Farming in Ford County, Kansas was not easy, especially when the weather was against them.
As the youngsters became young adults, most of them realized that they had little chance of ever playing in the major leagues. But their passion for the game was strong, and many of them played on semi-pro teams, still hoping that someday they might be discovered by a major league scout and finally get called up to the majors (or at least to a minor league affiliate).
The “pro” part of “semi-pro” referred to the teams being supported financially by a sponsor. Sponsorship usually amounted to supplying nice uniforms as well as bats, balls, and bases, in return for putting the sponsor’s name on the back of the uniform. It also entailed a contribution to a fund which was used to reserve public baseball diamonds and pay the umpires $3.50 a game.
The players proudly wore their spiked shoes and their uniforms (which were identical to the ones which major leaguers wore, including the traditional stirrup socks and knickers) and they felt especially pleased when a young boy would stop and stare as they passed by. They felt like heroes, and to much of River City they were.
Carlton McClure spoke fondly of the time he had spent on Dusty’s semi-pro team founded by the Morrison boys and sponsored by a local general merchandise purveyor with stores throughout Ford County and its five contiguous counties. The chain was known for its ubiquitous Burma Shave-like highway signs:
“When you need to shop…”
“For a broom or mop…”
“Or replace a hinge that’s rusty…”
“Come to Dusty’s!”
Carlton spoke of the time when the team suffered through a season without Chet. One spring Chet broke his right arm and three ribs, when the tractor he was riding tipped over. “Chet was, without question, the best hitter in our league… some said the best in the state,” Carlton said with pride, “and everyone knew he was destined for the big leagues.”
Carlton continued, telling the story of how, in 1943 Chet was called up to play for the St. Louis Cardinals double-A minor league team, the Rochester Red wings, and he hit for an impressive .303 average.
In 1944, Chet finally did make it to the big time and played for the Cardinals. In the spring of that season, he was called up to play in St. Louis with the likes of Stan Musial and Johnny Hopp.
“Everyone back here in River City was so proud of him,” Carlton gushed. “We couldn’t get the Cardinal games on the radio, but whenever the Cards were playing a night game, we’d all gather in Ned Bradley’s living room and listen to the game on his short-wave radio.”
Chet only played on the Cardinals through June that year because, in July, he was drafted and sent off to war. Musial batted .347 that year and Hopp batted .336 and the Cardinals went on to win the World Series. Because of his war injury, though, Chet never played baseball again.
It had been a beautiful service. As the family was leaving the chapel, they stopped in the narthex to greet and talk with all of the family and friends who had come to remember Chet. These people wanted to tell the Morrisons how sorry they were; how they wondered if there was anything they could do; how much Chet would be missed; what a pillar in the community Chet had been; how the American Legion meetings or Friday evenings at Jiggers — a local bar and pool hall — would not be the same…
While people were milling around exchanging stories and “catching up” with one another, a little old man sauntered up to Gracie and said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I played baseball for Gordon’s Feed Lot and we played many a game against Dusty’s. Those Morrison boys were really something. They really knew how to play ball! But mostly I just remember what a nice person Chet was and wanted to tell you how sorry I am.”
The crowd slowly began to disperse, and the family, close relatives, and guests who were there to honor Chet, joined the funeral procession behind the hearse and headed to the cemetery. Several years earlier, after Chet had harvested a bumper crop of wheat, he had bought two shady plots at the River City Cemetery — one for himself and another one for Gracie next to it.
The cemetery was situated on a beautiful, well-manicured hill, and offered a park-like setting. It was very peaceful and provided a haven for birds, rabbits, squirrels, and an occasional white-tailed deer. It seemed particularly popular with house sparrows and, appropriately, mourning doves. Another regular sight in the cemetery was a pair of sharp-shinned hawks.
On the day of Chet’s burial, the sun shone brightly and the air was warm. It was the type of day that River City citizens longed for. River City was normally cold and windy in the winter and hot and windy — like a blast furnace — in the summer. You could always count on the wind. It was quite faithful and predictable. One popular local joke was, “Do you know why it’s so windy in River City?”, “No, why?”, “Because Oklahoma sucks!”
At the grave, Rev. Waters consecrated the site and blessed the family. Gracie wept while the reverend was talking. As the casket had been lowered into the grave, the finality of it had suddenly hit her, and she gave in to her grief.
When the reverend ended with, “May God’s grace bless you and keep you,” each member of the immediate family placed a long-stem rose on the casket. After Brenda had placed her rose, she turned to go back to the car. As she did, she noticed a grizzled but fit-looking older man, sporting an impressive handle-bar mustache and wearing a 10-gallon hat and fine alligator-leather boots.
Standing by a locust tree a short distance up the hill, he seemed to have viewed the burial from a distance, purposely not getting too close. She stopped to get a better look at him, and as she did, he tipped his hat as if to say, “Howdy.”
Brenda was certain that she did not know this fellow, but she gave a quick, stifled wave and then hurried to the car. Later that evening the stranger’s visage came back to her. It intrigued her with thoughts of, “How does he know us?” and “Why was he there?” She didn’t know it then, but this stranger was soon to turn her world upside-down.