President Trump’s proposal to provide $12 billion in aid to farmers hurt by his tariff policy has got me thinking about where I came from. Words from an old Highwaymen song keep coming to me, slightly altered: The wind blows hard across the Kansas plains, makes some people go insane. Makes still others pray for rain, that’s where I come from.
I’ve lived in western Kansas, eastern Kansas, the New York City metro area and the Deep South. Believe me when I tell you that people’s general character varies by region, and people from the heartland are definitely not like those in the East. I know these people, and I fear that President Trump and most of his advisers don’t. Maybe things have changed since I was young, but we’ll see.
Here’s an example. As generous as he was to others, my Grandpa White had very strict ideas about taking handouts from the government. When Uncle Joe, Daddy’s older brother, was discharged from the Navy as World War II ended, he sought to take advantage of government programs for returning veterans. Part of the GI Bill was the 52-20 Club, which directly paid veterans $20 a week for 52 weeks while they looked for work.
When Uncle Joe walked out of the house to go down and sign up for the benefit, Grandpa White was working in the yard. He asked his oldest son where he was headed, and Joe told him.
“Dad hesitated a moment and said, ‘If you do, all your clothes will be on the front steps when you get back. No son of mine is going to take charity,’” Uncle Joe remembers. “I knew the conversation was over and I said, ‘I won’t go.’”
The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel.
The lesson stayed with Joe, and Daddy too, I guess. Uncle Joe says that when he turned 67 and went down to sign up for Social Security benefits, he was thankful he didn’t have to face his father—even though Social Security doesn’t fall into the category of a “handout.” And for all the years when I was growing up, times when we didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t pay the rent, I’m sure it never occurred to my father to accept a government handout.
That self-reliance and disdain for anyone who takes a “handout” are ingrained in the people in my part of the country, the vast expanse of flyover country most people will never visit unless they drive west on I-70 for a vacation in Colorado. After that long trip, they’ll grimace and say the drive is awfully flat and very boring. I was born right in the middle of the United States, where the rolling prairies rise to the High Plains, inching upwards toward the continental divide at the summit of the Rockies. People in the more populous states to the east and west tend to dismiss us, repeating “Kaan-sas?” with mocking incredulity when we tell them where we’re from. That, or they immediately ask about Dorothy and Toto from Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
The treeless, windy North American steppes were the last part of the growing United States to be settled, because the landscape was so alien and barren to a people whose sensibilities were shaped by the wooded contours of first Europe and then the eastern United States. As an editor from West Virginia once told me, it feels like there’s no place to hide. The first time my eight-year-old son accompanied me to visit my parents in western Kansas, his initial reaction was terror at the immense sky and the slanting shadow of a rainstorm in the distance. His second reaction was to ask why they didn’t build some buildings since there was so much empty space.
I find most people imagine that the people who settled the region were losers pushed out of the more comfortable environs to the east. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The settlers who ventured out onto the plains were, by necessity, tough, resourceful and independent. They were able to change their expectations enough to build their first homes from sod chopped from the prairie, and to use buffalo chips for fuel. The luxury of clapboard homes would come later, when the railroads shipped in wood.
The natives joke that you’ll know a Kansan because his grandmother drives 70 miles per hour in a snowstorm. In the Deep South they try not to drive at all in a snowstorm, and that’s not surprising. But they’re also reluctant to drive in New York City, where snow is common. I think that tells you something.
When we lived in the New York suburbs, a little lake up the street froze over every winter, metamorphosing into a natural ice-skating rink. The sport’s popularity was a revelation to me, because in Kansas the wind is too cold and too piercing to ever enjoy outdoor activities. I was awed to learn that below-freezing weather isn’t particularly unpleasant when the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there’s no such thing as a wind-chill factor.
School tended to be canceled with only the slightest dusting of snow, however, and one snow-day my young son wanted to invite a friend to ice skate. “Oh honey, none of these mothers will drive in this weather,” I cautioned. Joe called his friend Will anyway, and a half hour later Will’s mother turned up on my doorstep, her son in tow.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I ventured.
“No—Western Slope, Colorado,” she proudly replied. I nodded in recognition of a kindred soul.
My friends in the Deep South avoided driving in the snow because of lack of experience. In New York, however, the attitude was different. People seemed to wonder how Mother Nature dared to be so impertinent. In the Kansas of my youth, by contrast, people had few illusions about their importance or their right to expect anything of the weather. They didn’t think they were entitled to anything, ever, and so were thankful when their hard work brought modest rewards.
My roots twist deep into the black prairie soil, and I’ve got dust in my blood. I was born a Kansan, and Kansas is the reddest of the red states. The Big First—the sprawling congressional district that encompasses western Kansas—is one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. These are the people liberals love to hate, and by all rights I should be one of them.
I’m not, but I think I’m beginning to understand why rural people don’t trust those big city folks and their self-serving plans to fix all their problems. Indeed I do.
— Jacqueline White Kochak