C. Robert Haywood author of The Preacher's Kid
I have always called him "Dean" Haywood, because he came to Washburn University as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1969, a few years after I began teaching there, and, though he was also Vice President for Academic Affairs and then Provost, for a faculty member there is no higher position than Dean of the College--he is "the dean," the other people merely administrators, hardly worth paying any attention to.
C. Robert Haywood grew up on a farm in Ford County, Kansas, south of
Dodge City, during the "dust bowl" period, the setting for The
Preacher's Kid, a set of stories told by Bobby Woodward--a boy the
author insists is not autobiographical. He went on to Dodge City
Junior College, then, after time in the Navy during World War II, went to
the University of Kansas for his B.A. (1947) and M.A. (1948) in
history. He taught history at Southwestern College in Winfield,
Kansas, for some years, then, after earning his Ph.D. at the University of
North Carolina (1956) with a dissertation on Colonial Mercantilism, became
Dean of Southwestern, and then of Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois,
before coming to Washburn in that capacity. But he was always first
a teacher, and returned to the classroom as distinguished Professor of
History at Washburn for several years before his retirement. Over
the years, he has been very popular as a speaker, has published widely in
academic periodicals, and has a series of books on the history the Dodge
City region--Trails South and Cowtown Lawyers
with University of Oklahoma Press, and The Victorian West
with the University of Kansas Press--but the Preacher's Kid
is his major work of fiction, published by The Woodley
Press (click link for ordering information) in 1985, and
winner of the Kansas Authors Club annual Coffin Award in 1987. As
the back cover of the book informs us:
Bobby Woodward tells of his adventures and misadventures in coping with "Mr. Hoover's Depression" in a small western Kansas town. He may be cursed with the added burden of being a PK (Preacher's Kid), and with a FATE which could be either lucky or unlucky, but he is certainly blessed with a penchant for finding trouble and "tribulation," with a fine boy's soprano singing voice, and with an older brother, who helps him "sort things out," regales him with tales of bold knights of old, and encourages him "to own" all the big words he can, which will then "mightily astound those college professors." He brings this mixture of benefits and liabilities to his contacts with school, the Methodist Episcopal Church-North, the Lucky Mr. "Pretty Boy" Floyd, an unpredictable baptism, a Texas-style burying, the town's profane blacksmith, a hasty marriage, tent shows, and the traveling, mummified body of John Wilkes Booth. Over it all hangs the dust, the Depression, and a growing awareness of life's farcical victories and survivable defeats.
The book is a collection of a dozen stories, each standing on its own, but pulled together by the character and his environment into something like a picaresque novel. As a sample, I offer the next to last story:
The Deep Hole Swimming Champion of Kansas
Bud Taylor and I had plain run out of
anything to do. For about a half hour we'd been stretched out in the
shade of a puny cottonwood tree in his backyard, not moving or saying
anything. There was hardly a stir of wind in all that big open sky
we could see through the branches. The cottonwood leaves were making
a soft, sad whisper as the breeze oozed through them. A few lonesome
clouds floated along in the sky and, if we were doing anything, we were
watching them change shapes and colors. We had long since stopped
telling each other what they looked like. The day was too lazy, hot,
and quiet for us to be bothered.
It was hot! The big thermometer in Sargent's Drug Store window registered 105 degrees at 11:00 o'clock that morning. I felt I could never work up enough ambition to move away from that one spot. The whole town must have been in the same mood. There wasn't a sound to be heard anywhere. It was as if everybody had the day off and all had decided to take a nap at the same time. Bud and I just lay there in the heat and stillness, waiting for a new cloud to come into view, not really caring whether it did or not.
After a while, Bud said, in a sleepy voice, "I'll bet it's a lot cooler in the old jail than here."
I was so near to falling asleep, I had a hard time concentrating on what he was saying. I decided he meant the old Dalton jailhouse. It had been built back in the horse-and-buggy days to hold prisoners overnight. If some drunk got too rambunctious at the Parish Hall dance, or someone robbed the bank late at night, the county jail was too far to take them there on horseback until the next day. So, the town built this eight-by-ten-foot cement house. The walls were about a foot thick and you could see the iron reinforcing rods sticking out of the four corners. There was one little window and a door made of strap iron. With the door sagging open, it had stood for years empty and forgotten on the same lot as the town's water works. I could see why Bud might think it would be cool there because of the thick walls and cement roof.
"I don't know," I said, starting an argument out of pure boredom. "A place that small, with no air stirring, would be hotter'n the Black Hole of Calcutta."
Harold had told me how the Sepoys had crowded all those Englishmen with their bulldogs into a little dungeon over in India. I told Bud about it.
"Most of them went mad," I explained, "foaming at the mouth or dying of the heat. It gets awful hot in India even if you ain't in any hole. At least I think they put bulldogs in the Hole with the Englishmen. I ain't positive certain about that."
I remembered something about only Englishmen and mad dogs going out in the noonday sun in India. Logic would put them in the hot Hole together, but I could have mixed up the story with some Kipling poems Harold also read to me about the same time.
"If they put bulldogs in with 'em, maybe they died of rabies," Bud suggested.
"That's dumb," I said. "Dogs don't get rabies because it's hot. No, it was because the space was so small."
We were both saying things that didn't make much sense simply because we were too lazy to think straight. But we kept at it until we had a fair argument going. The only way to settle it was to walk up to the north end of town to see for ourselves if it was hot inside the jail or not.
When we got there, we forgot all about the jail, because there was some water spilling over the side of the water tower. We had never seen that before. The tower, actually a standpipe, had been there a long time. It was built back before the World War and was about as big around as a good-sized room. Its dozen coats of black paint always seemed to be peeling off. Ted Barton had written an editorial about the standpipe in the last Dalton Weekly News. He told how fortunate Dalton was to have a good water supply, 99.9 percent pure, and how the standpipe was one hundred feet and six inches tall and leaned a bit to the south because the foundation had settled on one side.
"They had to take off the panel there on top," Bud explained, pointing up to where the water was dribbling over, "because the hinges were all rusty, and Shorty Wilcoxen is putting new ones on. They need to get inside once in a while to clean the blamed thing out. 'Skitter' told me that, last time they scrubbed it down, they found two dead sparrows and a squirrel I guess that's why the water is only 99.9 percent pure. But the reason the water is spilling over is 'cause the panel's gone."
Since we had forgotten all about our argument over the jail, and it was still scorching hot, I lay down in the shade of the standpipe with my head up against the cold iron. Looking up at the sky from that angle, the standpipe appeared a whole lot more than a hundred feet tall. With the clouds passing by, it felt like the pipe was moving and about to fall over.
Bud was just as impressed with its bigness as I was and said so.
"I dare ya' to climb all the way to the top and look in where the panel's gone."
"Wouldn't be no trick at all if I could only get a boost up to the first rung of the ladder."
You see, there was an iron ladder bolted to the side of the standpipe, but it was ten or fifteen feet from the ground. They did that to keep kids from climbing up and painting stuff on the sides. The high school seniors always managed it anyway, just before graduation day.
Well, the more I thought about it, lying there looking up at the standpipe moving against the clouds, the more fun I thought it would be to take Bud's dare. Then I got this crazy idea. Or maybe it was just the greatest idea I ever had!
"Look here, Bud," I began, getting more excited as I talked. "Do you realize there's a hundred feet of water in that pipe? There ain't no place in Kansas where water is a hundred feet deep. Man, alive! That's as deep as the ocean a hundred miles out from shore. With the panel off the top, a guy could climb up the ladder, kick out of his clothes, and be swimming in the deepest damn swimming hole in the whole damned state!
Bud kept looking up, but he began backing away.
"Think of it!" I was up on my feet now, waving my arms around. "Nobody in all of Kansas ever swam in a pond, or lake, or anything that deep. Now, if we climb up there, we will do something nobody in all of Kansas, including Wichita, has ever done. And we could do it right here in Dalton. Man! Oh, man!"
I didn't know right then how I was going to get up to the first iron rung, but I knew nothing was stopping me from swimming in Dalton's standpipe.
"You're plain nuts," Bud said. "As sure as ya' get halfway up, old Charley Fowler would come and haul ya' down. But even if ya' got inside, suppose everybody flushed their toilets at the same time or a fire broke out and they began squirting all that water from the fire hydrant. Before you would know it, the water would be down three feet and ya' couldn't reach the edge to pull yourself out. You'd drown in there for sure."
Charley Fowler was the town marshal, and he also tended the two wells pumping water into the standpipe. It was true he checked around every once in a while. I hadn't thought of that.
"We'll do it at night," I said, getting rid of Fowler as an obstacle. As for everybody going to the bathroom all at one time, although it presented a funny picture, I didn't think the odds were very great that it would happen. But I could see Bud wasn't nearly as enthusiastic as I was about being the only person to swim in a hundred feet of water. I was going to have to work hard on him.
"Look, we can get the extension ladder off Wilson's garage. It's only down two houses. Then, we can reach the bottom rung and, from there on, it's just one step after another to the top. We can splash around a bit and come right back down. Boy, I can just feel that cool water now. Besides, we'll have done something Hottsey Winter never dreamed of doing."
Hottsey was Bud's worst enemy and I knew he would do almost anything to get the best of Hottsey. I could see Bud was wavering.
"We'll do it tonight, because they might have the panel back on tomorrow. Besides, there's a big, full moon and no clouds." Funny how your mind covers up what you don't want to think about. I'd plumb forgotten the clouds we'd spent the afternoon watching.
We finally arranged to meet at Wilson's garage at midnight, giving us plenty of time to see that the folks were asleep and the moon up.
Everything worked out just like I had planned. Wilson's ladder reached the lower rung easy enough. I took off my shoes and started right up. When I looked down to say something to Bud, he was gone. I couldn't chicken out after getting that close, so there was nothing to do but go it alone.
Climbing up the ladder 'most took my breath away. Each rung lifted me up further from the hot, dusty town and into the free, cool air. It was just like the dream old Jacob he had when he beheld the ladder set upon the earth with the top reaching into the heavens. The moon seemed to be floating along just out of arm's reach and, honest-to-God, got brighter the nearer I got to the top. I could see a few lights flickering down on Main Street and a car moving along Highway 54 not making a sound. Everything else was covered over with the night. You could see the shape of the houses and trees, but they seemed soft, smooth, and rounded off in a flimsy haze. The only sound I could hear was the wind making a low moan as it slipped by the panel opening. I I never felt so perfectly alone and so almighty calm in my whole life.
When I reached the panel opening, I could feel the water slopping over the edge a little, as it had been doing in the afternoon. I skinned out of my overalls, which was all I was wearing, and splashed in. Oh, Lordy! Was that ever a great feeling. The water was a lot colder than I had expected, but I felt like a million even if I was covered all over with goose bumps. I swam around the edge of the pipe, back and forth, and tried to shoot up and touch the top of the standpipe cover. After about fifteen minutes or so, I climbed back out and scurried down the iron ladder. When I got to the bottom rung, I realized Bud, the damned coward, had taken down Wilson's ladder. I let loose and dropped to the ground. I got cuts all over my feet and picked up a dozen stickers before I could find my shoes.
It wasn't 'til then that I remembered that in all the excitement I'd left my overalls up on the rim of the standpipe. There I was, naked as a bluejay except for my shoes. To add to my troubles, a truck came up Main Street and turned in by the well-house, with its headlights on the standpipe. I flopped down in the weeds and hugged the ground while Charley Fowler, with a couple of guys, went into the well-house. I knew I couldn't lie there in the weeds all night while they drank their bootleg hootch and swapped tall tales. I couldn't be scrambling around to get the ladder back up to get my overalls, either. So I crawled along until I thought it was safe to take off for home. I felt like a fool running across Main Street in the dead of night as naked as the man from Jericho before the Good Samaritan found him. I had to hide in the bushes in Miss Sweetwater's yard to catch my breath, hoping no Samaritan or anyone else would come along. I could have knocked Bud's block off for hiding the ladder.
Once I had sneaked back through the window, and was safe in my bed, I calmed down and stopped shaking. After a few minutes, I forgot all my immediate troubles: the lost pants, the ladder, the scratches all over my body, and the sight I must have made streaking across town. I just lay there in a kind of exhausted glow, knowing I was one of a kind--knowing I had done something no kid, nor no grown up for that matter, had ever done. I couldn't wait to lord it over Bud and brag to the other guys about my adventure. It would make up for having to wear knickers, being a PK, and having a Dad who wouldn't let me go to the Toby Shows. I felt on top of the world.
Then it hit me, like somebody punching me in the middle of my stomach. I couldn't tell anyone, not even Bud, what I had done. If they--meaning my folks, Charley Fowler, Ted Barton, Miss Carlson, the Sheriff, anybody--found out about that swim, there would be all hell to pay. They might go so far as to send me to the Hutchinson Reformatory. But even if they didn't, I'd be in for it. I wouldn't mind Dad swatting me with his belt, I could even stand Mom crying, but I'd lose all freedom. They'd watch me like a hawk forever. I'd have to go to Wednesday Night Prayer Meetings, would never be let out of the house after dark, would find the screen nailed shut, and God-knows-what-all. Then, too, I wasn't even sure Harold would think it had been a great idea. I couldn't stand it if he got sore at me.
Damn, damn, and double damn! Here I had gone and done the greatest thing in my whole life, big enough for Robert Ripley's BELIEVE IT OR NOT, probably the greatest thing anyone had done in Dalton since the last Indian raid, and I couldn't tell a soul. The more I fretted about it, the more unfair it seemed. I was like the prospector in a story Harold had told me. This guy had found a ton of treasure--gold, rubies, diamonds, and stuff. On his way back to civilization, he lost his pack full of gold, and his map, too. He was fated to spend the rest of his life on secret missions, trying to find the lost cave in the mountains. He couldn't tell anyone about his fabulous find for fear they would beat him out of it. He died in an insane asylum, crazy as a bedbug, foaming at the mouth, and jabbering about gold and rubies, but by then nobody paid any attention to what he was raving about.
I was in the same fix.
This was worse than that time in Wichita when Herb Wellington talked me into thinking I was a born loser right when I thought I was a big winner. That had been just a sad case of a goofy kid being lucky for once in his life and me not. It could have gone the other way just as easy. This time there couldn't be any other way. I couldn't think of a thing that would have saved my swimming championship. It wasn't a matter of luck. In fact, I'd been lucky not to get caught. It must be the worst kind of FATE to be lucky and not be able to enjoy it.
The next day I did go back, found my pants where they had blown off the standpipe, and the ladder over in the weeds. I dragged the ladder back to Wilson's and sneaked my overalls into Mom's laundry basket. So, no one suspected a thing. The next time I saw him, Bud explained the reason he ran off was he thought he heard someone coming. I wouldn't even talk to him about his lowdown trick or the standpipe. I just acted mad and disappointed. I know he thought I'd chickened out like he had.
I kept it all to myself, brooding about the injustice of it all. I was depressed for a week. Gradually, however, it began to take on another meaning. When Dad bawled me out one morning and I got to feeling down, I wandered up to the north end of town and looked up at that big, ol', ugly black standpipe and got my spirit lifted just thinking about how great that climb up and the night swim had been. After that, if someone beat me in "shinney," or caught more fish, or made an "A" in spelling when I got my usual "D," I'd say to myself, "Yeah, but you never swam in a hundred foot of water."
Finally, I realized it was best nobody knew but me. You see, I had this one thing I'd done, this one thing I knew about me greater than what anyone else knew about me. There were tons of bad things I'd done or thought that only I knew about. When they came up in my mind, I always felt little or foolish or just plain bad. Now, I had this big thing no one else could ever be a part of. It more than off-set those nagging sins.
As it was, I knew I was the one-and-only-deep-hole-swimming-champion-of-Kansas! It was enough to be the greatest, even if nobody else in the whole world knew but me. It was mine and bad luck, FATE, nor nobody could take it away from me.
For ordering information on The Preacher's Kid use this link to The Woodley Press.