Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Land of Goshen I

A couple of trips in the next couple of weeks will make it impossible to churn out blog posts, so I'm resorting to a strategy I've employed before, publishing something old, this time, fiction. "The Land of Goshen" got me into Indiana University Writer's Program in 1985, which means, I think, that it is, this year, 30 years old. I have to say that again to believe it myself:  "The Land of Goshen" is at least 30 years and largely unpublished because even back then, when magazines took longer stories, few would even look at something this long.

Warning--this story is going to run for three weeks.  I hate to lose readers, but I'm telling you that it's 15 installments long, a long story.

To me, "The Land of Goshen" is interesting because 30 years ago I was 35, not 66 years old. It features the kind of darkness that I thought great stories featured; it's raw realism (a literary tradition largely left behind in the last two decades). For that I don't apologize--I'm as much a creature of my time as anyone else. 

The inspiration came from a story told to me by a friend, a colleague, who told me how a young preacher got himself in a terrible mess in a small country church when he used the occasion of the funeral of a tyrant father to lower the boom on the man's less-than-upright children, telling them that the death of the old man should teach them to live in a wholly (and I suppose, holy) different way. 

That Jeremiad didn't go over well.  

I was likely a young elder at the time, opening up old problems whose origins were rooted in generations past.  

But prototypes are just that--they're only inspirations, not road maps.  Still, if you stick with the story, you'll see the outline of that true story giving life to what I wrote way back when--30 years ago. Who knows what else we might discover along the way?

Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like for old man Emil to stand out here on the prairie and see nothing at all but grass and sky, because when the Branderhorsts came here there were no trees. Ten miles west, the scrub oak have always grown like weeds over the hills that shoulder the river valley, but here there was nothing. They're here now, elm and cottonwoods and ash like shadows around the houses and the church, the elevator and the store. There are few poplars around, because in Goshen nobody's ever been short-sighted. If you plant at all, you plant long term-maples and elm-and shore up the saplings until they get twelve feet or so.

But if it weren't for the trees, there'd be little to distinguish Goshen from what it might have looked like seventy-five years ago, a little set­tlement of frame houses surrounding a country store, a church, and a school on the town's only paved street. Of course, the school is shut down now. Years ago already Goshen's kids were vacuumed up by the Winoka district when the state put on pressure to consolidate the smallest districts. So the kids are gone. The trees are grown up and the kids are-­gone. Otherwise, Goshen's just about the same.

Once your tires crack the gravel at the end of the town's blacktop, if you stay with the road, if you follow its sweeping curve through the fields and over the culverts, you'll find that same big house that's been here for years—Emil’s own American dream. It's always been painted white, and it stands out front of the barn and sheds, facing east so that it catches the face of the dawn, a glossy mirage against the long tawny grain fields stretching west to the river. The home place is the only house in the county with four two-story pillars out front, the kind of pillars that bring to mind a Southern plantation set down here on the bleak nor­thern plains by some freakish, drunken whirlwind.

Emil Branderhorst had money when he came from the old country at the turn of the century, money and kids; and he built the home place first thing to stand up on the knoll like a castle just west of town.

Those days, of course, there was promise in the land. Goshen had a couple hundred people, and the sweep of prairie, west and east, sprout farms where hundreds of immigrant families cut through prairie turf if, with proper cultivation, they could grow their own fortunes. Last week Emil's great-grandson sold three hundred cattle at a hundred-dollar a ­head loss, and in ten minutes of sluggish bidding lost himself $30,000. Emil's castle cost half that much to build.

In the thirties already the land shook off excess settlers as if God himself, like a farm wife, picked up the topsoil like a dirty carpet and shook it in the wind. Some of the immigrants left the land of Goshen­; those who took up farming in America because they thought it was the only new country occupation; those who were simply not predestined to take the rigors of milking; those whose vision of the promised land hadn't included the burning heat of a prairie summer or searing winter winds spun from a continent of snow to the north; and those whose ambition climbed beyond a barbed-wire fence strung around eighty acres of black soil, no matter how rich and sweet it smelled come May's annual re-awakening. The land itself evicted its unsuited squatters, and those who were left dug in like survivors, planting elm and ash and maple south of the house for balm from the sun, north and west as a shield from the wind.

By the forties Goshen never saw new faces, save a new schoolteacher or a preacher, transients for the most part, in a community of not more than a half-dozen extended families who met on Sunday, as was Emil's custom, in the frame church in town to drink their own brand of old­ country Calvinism. Good sermons, folks thought, were something like cod liver oil, a potion one needed to stay healthy, not necessarily good­ tasting but morally, spiritually healthful. For years Goshen thought a good sermon was one that laid a scar across your back, one that kept you smarting through a week of fieldwork. .

What Reverend Heerema did the day of Earl Branderhorst's funeral was nothing out of the ordinary for the place. There's never been a fire n the Goshen church, but its walls are thoroughly scorched. What Heerema said that day is well within the traditions of Great-grandpa Emil's own Calvinism, but it laid proud welts across his descendants' backs, opened up some thick skin that had long ago lost sensitivity to the scourge of a stringent sermon. What I'm saying is that in some ways little has changed in Goshen, and yet there is a difference. Emil Branderhorst's great-grandchildren still take some pleasure in an old-fashioned whip­ping from the pulpit, but only for the searing sound of the whip in the air and not for the open flesh across the back. It's the sound alone that rings true to a deep sense of tradition—“give me that old-time religion.” They like the pitch of a blistering sermon, but the fierce gospel itself doesn't tune their lives anymore. That's what I mean. Heerema gave them what they wanted, but the amplification smashed right through their precious stained glass.

The Lord only knows why folks called Earl, Emil's wealthiest grand­son, "the Beagle," but they did for as long as anyone could remember. In Goshen men have a way of nicknaming each other as boys already, assigning each other tags and poking them in a kid's ear the same way they tag cattle. Earl was one of a couple dozen of Emil's grandchildren, but he wore the Branderhorst features as if he were cut out of the exact pattern-wide shoulders above a long and stocky trunk, with squat legs and no rear end whatsoever, so the back pockets of his jeans hung down from his waist like a pair of empty bags. Like most Branderhorsts, Earl's face had the puffy red glow of an alcoholic's, a thick nose and a broad forehead, his cheeks shot full of tiny red veins, his full head of hair still dark and wavy when he was nearing seventy, refusing to gray with a Branderhorst's perfectly stubborn determination.

Earl lived on the home place for one reason: unlike many of his cousins, he never went to war. If he had had his choice, he likely might have; but his father kept him back, even though, like all the rest, Earl had this fervor to go to Europe or the Pacific and do what he could, at least that's the story as he tells it. Reluctantly, he got an agricultural defer­ment when so many other boys were already gone, and the war, for the most part, treated him well. By the time his cousins returned to Goshen from Guadalcanal and Anzio, the Beagle had, as they say, a leg up on the field, his operation expanding throughout the war years whenever land came available in the area. He learned how to deal on the black market, picking up implements when the government claimed they were unavailable, buying tires when the Co-op said there were none to be found. He had no trouble rationalizing his wheeling and dealing, because his operation turned out more milk and beef and grain, with more effi­ciency and in greater supply than anything seen in the county. He was doing his part at home, he thought-and said. That's what his father told him, and that's how he dealt with his guilt over not carrying a gun into Germany. But he made enemies, lots of them. Somehow there's room for enemies in Goshen, even though the town itself is no more than six blocks long.

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