Claiborne fed the chickens early one summer morning in 1916, not expecting his life to change. The hens, busy with their corn mash, gabbled and scratched as he climbed to the coop’s roof. Before him lay the Kansas prairie, fragrant and serene, stretching westward to infinity. You’ll never forget the prairie, his father often reminded him. “No matter where you go, the prairie will always be with you. It’s in your blood.” Not encouraging words to Claiborne. Not yet twelve years old and faced with a lifetime of staring into the distance with prairie dust in his veins.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. His father often said that too, like when he read in the Junction City Courier about the German Kaiser’s army invading Belgium. To Claiborne the words meant something far more pressing than the war. In the kitchen he watched his mother flick water droplets on a hot skillet. Satisfied as they skittered across the surface, she gave the mixing bowl one final stir, then dolloped out blobs of pancake batter.
“Today,” Claiborne said, “me and Grover are gonna rob the Junction City train.”
She waggled the spoon at him. “You are not. You are going to sit down at that table and eat your breakfast. Then you are going to get cleaned up and go to church with your poppa and me, just like every Sunday.”
Claiborne’s father ambled into the kitchen, newspaper in hand, and took a seat. “Sounds like a fine idea to me, son. Nobody’s held up a train around these parts in a long while. I’m sure they can make room for you at the penitentiary over to Leavenworth.”
“Now don’t you start in, Henry. That’s not proper talk on the Lord’s Day.” She picked up a metal spatula and pointed it at her son. “And you, Claiborne Parken, you are going to listen to Reverend Myers and learn something. And stay away from that Grover boy; he’s a bad influence. Never will amount to any good.” She flipped a pancake with a quick snap of her wrist. “Gracious sakes, nobody robs trains anymore.”
Reverend Myers delivered his sermon in his customary insubstantial nasal drone. Book of Philippians, Chapter Three. Claiborne, tucked between his parents on a hard oak pew, didn’t hear much of it and remembered even less. A few words though, resounded clear as the tinkle of tin-can lids dangling from cherry tree branches.
“But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.”
Exactly. Forget all that old stuff. Time for desperate measures. Reach for the future, beyond the prairie. And the sooner the better.
Grover’s house, two blocks down the gravel road toward town from Claiborne’s house, sat dappled in shade from tall cottonwoods along Dry Creek. Claiborne found Grover by the storm-cellar door, knife in hand, a twelfth-birthday gift from his father. Pinned to the wooden door, Kaiser Wilhelm’s somber face clipped from a Collier’s Magazine cover, bore several grievous stab wounds.
“I’m surprised you haven’t busted it yet,” Claiborne said.
Grover scrutinized the shiny blade. “You ain’t gonna get your paws on it, that’s for dang sure. Get your old man to give you one.”
“I don’t want a knife. I’m gonna get a rifle.”
“Bull crap,” Grover said as he flung his knife at the Kaiser. “What you want a rifle for anyhow? You plannin’ to shoot yourself?”
“Never you mind. I want one.”
Grover smirked. “I don’t need no rifle. I can use my pa’s .22 anytime I want.”
“Sure, whenever he’s gone and don’t know you took it.”
“Hey,” Grover said. “You wanna take the tractor out? Pa’s over to Junction City. Won’t be back ‘til dark.”
“You’ll catch a lickin’ if you run it out of gas.”
“Naw, the tanks full up. Let’s give ‘er a spin.”
“Your ma will hear us, and she’ll tell your pa.”
“No she won’t. She don’t care. C’mon, don’t be such a chicken.”
Claiborne scuffed at the hard-packed dirt with the toe of his shoe. “How you gonna get the key?”
“Don’t need no key. You just set the ignition and retard the spark. Flip the flywheel once or twice, and she fires right up.”
“Don’t seem right,” Claiborne said, “takin’ a tractor out on Sunday.”
Grover yanked his knife from the Kaiser’s eye. “I forgot,” he said. “You’re one of them psalm-singin’ church boys. Too good to be a dirt farmer like the rest of us. You ain’t gonna be nothin’ but a dumb clerk in your old man’s feed store your whole life.”
Claiborne trudged home. He hated the gravel beneath his feet, the way it sounded like a horse munching oats, the way it smelled, dry and lifeless, like himself. As he reached for the kitchen screen-door handle, he heard a faint distant flutter. The sound grew louder, an engine for sure, but not like the guttural grumble of his father’s old Hupmobile. This sound was clean, a gentle heartbeat rising and falling on a summer zephyr. He turned his face to the sky. His heart stopped. Above him glided a majestic construct, bright yellow as a field of sunflowers, broad wings above a slender box-like body. His mother stepped from the kitchen door and looked skyward.
“Upon my soul,” she said. “An areoplane. From over to Fort Riley, I expect.”
The aircraft drifted across the Kansas sky, unconcerned with time or place, trailing behind it the entire world, faraway places and sights unimagined. Claiborne Parken stood transfixed by a revelation of his future. Freed from earthly constraints, he became in that instant, once and forever, an aviator.
Wayne Bonnett, based near San Francisco, is a fiction and non-fiction writer who has published non-fiction articles, photo essays, and ten books on California and Pacific Coast history. He is currently completing his second novel in the historical fiction genre.
© 2022, Wayne Bonnett