Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
‘DRAGGING WYATT EARP’
“Returning home is like that. The future gets left behind, a piano dumped on a stark prairie. Suddenly you’re left with nothing but your life and the past. You have returned. Full circle. Everything else is just a blur.”
Those are the words of Robert Rebein in the prologue of his new memoir, “Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City.” Rebein, who grew up in Dodge, is now an English professor in Indianapolis.
When an author writes “a piano dumped on a stark prairie” on the first page, I know I’m in for a great read. A few pages later Rebein describes the grain elevators in his hometown as “Big white pencils busily erasing the Old West of yore.”
Language and stories are two vital aspects of memoir. “Dragging Wyatt Earp” excels on both counts.
Rebein’s essays about growing up in Dodge City are simply the tales of everyday life. He connects well with the reader because he brings each scene to life with detail and description. He helps us recall experiences of our own.
In “House on Wheels,” the author describes his family life (he was the sixth of seven sons) and the evolution of their home which included one remodeling project after another. “And this, too, shall pass,” was his mother’s mantra.
The author tells of hanging out at his dad’s salvage yard during his early grade school years in the essay “In the Land of Crashed Cars and Junkyard Dogs.” He studied the characters employed there and observed a variety of temperaments. And he told of Challo, the body man, who found and completely restored a Schwinn bicycle for Rebein, so Rebein could fetch Challo’s lunch more quickly.
His father sold the salvage yard after a few years and returned to farming and ranching. When a blizzard kicked up one day, Rebein’s father showed up at his fifth grade classroom and took him out of school. “‘The cattle are out,’ the old man informed me as I climbed into the cab of his pickup.” In the parking lot of his grade school that day, Rebein’s father taught him how to drive the truck, a stick shift.
Rebein wrote, “The cattle were spread out across two counties, and getting them back to where they belonged was an arduous task involving much in the way of human and animal suffering.”
“My part was to guide a truck loaded with alfalfa between snow-filled ditches (hence the impromptu driving lesson), while my father and several of my brothers and cousins prodded the exhausted cattle from behind. It was terrible, grinding work.”
The author includes quite a bit of history of Dodge City and the region. He tells of the drunken cow town that Dodge City was once upon a time, and writes about Wyatt Earp, the town’s famous lawman. Rebein follows Coronado’s expedition, visits scenes of Cheyenne villages, learns how to ride a bronc, and spends a day as a feedlot cowboy.
With the title piece, Rebein reminds us of a familiar teenage activity – dragging Main. In Dodge City, however, it was Wyatt Earp Boulevard that was dragged.
“The epicenter of my teen years was the parking lot below Boot Hill Museum, a rectangle of concrete the size of a football field…” where high school kids leaned against cars and drank beer. A metal cage for empty cans was in the parking lot and “most weekends we possessed no higher ambition than to ‘fill the cage.’ This was the kind of thing that mattered to us, not Wyatt Earp, not history.”
He and his friends were killing time. Not killing time until midnight or until their next football game. “… we were leaving. And not just for a year or five years, but forever. Like the region’s cattle, wheat and corn, we’d been raised for export, and most of us had learned this fact about the time we learned that Santa Claus was a fiction.”
Rebein’s memoir gives us a chance to think about our own relationship with our own hometown, recall our own stories, our own dreams. The book helps us remember the things we treasured in our town, what we took away from that place, and what we left behind.
“Dragging Wyatt Earp” is published by Swallow Press in partnership with Ohio University Press. Robert Rebein teaches creative writing and directs the graduate program in English at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. For more information, visit www.robertrebein.com.