Imagine this--just a few scrappy, three-foot cuttings sticking up from front yards in front of a half-dozen houses in a settlement called Broken Bow. That's it--the only trees for miles around, a bunch of upright buggy whips. A man named Mr. Taylor, a school board member who lives in the back of a his own ramshackle shop, sends his hired man around to take you to the Talbot's sod house, about a mile out of town, he says.
It's 1888, and you've never been this far west, never seen a community in its infancy, things just starting to form on a landscape that's perfectly endless. It's hot, very hot, but there's a breeze--feel it? It's the only thing keeping you from sweaty suffocation.
This place is not home. You've just come out of Normal School in Iowa, all ready to be a teacher; you determined you'd go west like so many others, so you did, and now that you're way out here, you wonder if somewhere along the line you simply lost your mind.
The Talbot's are kind people. They take you in sweetly, Mrs. Talbot offering a level of reassurance that there is yet some humanity here, some love, some comfort.
The next morning after a remarkable breakfast, you take the hand of one of the Talbot's little girls, then leave the sanctuary of the sod house for the school, yet another soddie. It's just twelve feet by fifteen feet--that's it; and it's the place where you're going to be a teacher. You're going to be a teacher in a soddie so small it's little bigger than a kitchen.
Brush and weeds cover the thing so loosely that you try not to look up because when you do it's blue sky almost all over. You step back outside and look around at nothing but grass flowing in the wind as far as you can see. One of the Talbot girls is there with you, but you can't help thinking that no one else is coming because no one--absolutely no one--is anywhere near. Where would they come from?--you ask yourself.
In a half hour, you realize you were wrong.
Your name is Mrs. J. J. Douglas, and this is the way you remember that very first day or two in Broken Bow and the tiny schoolhouse that was your world that very first year out there on the frontier. You're remembering now, all of it coming back years later as if in a dream because it seems so museum-like that the whole story is almost embarrassing, and it would be if just remembering all of it weren't so blessedly wonderful.
"I found in that little, obscure school house some of the brightest and best boys and girls it was ever my good fortune to meet," she says in a memoir she titled "Reminiscences of Custer County." And then this: "There soon sprang up between us a bond of sympathy." Sympathy? "I sympathized with them in their almost total isolation from the world," she says, as if each of the kids in that 12x15 foot sod schoolhouse were suffering.
She may have thought that, but somehow I doubt that they were.
And this: ". . .and they sympathized with me in my loneliness and homelessness."
I don't know why, but I don't believe that the sympathy moved equally in both directions. I'm guessing the kids didn't think of themselves as suffering, but their 19-year-old teacher did.
The kids were the sweethearts, and that's really what she remembers. They were singers, she writes, "so many sweet voices," especially two little girls who seemed "remarkable," she says, "for children of their age.
Mrs. Douglas's school memory ends with a darling, almost heavenly image. One bright day, having dismissed her scholars, she stood outside that sodhouse door and watched the kids walk into the horizon by way of a path that led into a stretch of big blue stem so tall it hid them completely.
But what that prairie grass didn't hide was their music. "I could hear those sweet tones long after the children were out of sight in the tall grass," she says, a moment she says she often recalls because "I shall never forget how charmingly that music seemed to me." A blessing.
She doesn't say it, but I will. I wonder whether that music wasn't created just for her, music of the spheres for her "loneliness and homelessness," sung by the angels.
I think that's how she remembers it.
For a couple of weeks, I'm at the National Homestead Monument, just outside of Beatrice, NE, doing an art residency, writing some things, like this. For that time, look for more stories retold of pioneer life, many of which will come from Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences (1916), a fragile old collection of stories which this year is celebrating its own 100th birthday, a good time to take it down from the shelf for another look.