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A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland

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Chapter 1

A Long Way from Home

In 1962, I put my home state of South Dakota in a rearview mirror
and drove away. I was uncertain of my final destination but
determined to get well beyond the slow rhythms of life in the small
towns and rural culture of the Great Plains. I thought that the
influences of the people, the land, and the time during my first
twenty-two years of life were part of the past. But gradually I
came to know how much they meant to my future, and so I have
returned often as part of a long pilgrimage of renewal.

When I do return, my wardrobe and home address are New York, my job
is high-profile, and my bank account is secure, but when I enter a
South Dakota café or stop for gas, I am just someone who grew
up around here, left a while back, and never really answers when
he's asked, "When you gonna move back home?" I am caught in that
place all too familiar to small-state natives who have moved on to
a rewarding life in larger arenas: I don't want to move back, but
in a way I never want to leave. I am nourished by every
visit.

On those trips back to the Great Plains I always try to imagine the
land before it was touched by rails and plows, fences and roads. I
can still drive off the pavement of South Dakota highways, find a
slight elevation in the prairie flatness, and look to a distant
horizon, across untilled grassland, and with no barbed wire or
telephone poles or dwellings to break the plane of earth and sky.
It is at once majestic and intimidating. More than a century after
the first white settlers began to arrive, the old Dakota Territory
remains a place where nature rules.

On a still, hot late-summer day, after a wet spring in the northern
plains of South Dakota, the rich golden fields of wheat and barley,
the deep green landscapes of corn and alfalfa surrounding the neat
white farmhouses framed by red barns and rows of sheltering trees,
give a glow of goodness and prosperity. It is hard to remember this
was once a place of despair brought on by a cruel combination of
nature and economic forces at their most terrifying.

This was a bleak and hostile land in the Dirty Thirties.

Families struggled against drought, grasshoppers, collapsed
markets, and fear. Billowing clouds of topsoil, lifted off the land
by fierce winds, reduced the sun to a faint orb; in April 1934,
traces of Great Plains soil were found as far east as Washington,
D.C. One report said the dust storm was so bad it left a film on
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Oval Office desk.

This is where my mother and father were raised and came of age, at
the height of the Depression. It is where I was born and spent the
first twenty-two years of my life, and it remains always familiar,
however long I have been away. Whenever I return, I try to imagine
the struggles my parents and everyone else went through here in the
thirties. That time formed them-and through them, it formed me. I
am in awe of how they emerged, and I am grateful for their legacy,
although I have been an imperfect steward.

I left in 1962, hungry for bright lights, big cities, big ideas,
and exotic places well beyond the conventions and constraints of my
small-town childhood, but forty years later I still call South
Dakota home. Time and distance have sharpened my understanding of
the forces that shaped my parents' lives and mine so enduringly.
Those forces are the grid on which I've come to rely, in good times
and bad.

In the late 1800s, the Dakota Territory was one of the last
frontiers in America, a broad, flat grassland where Sitting Bull,
Crazy Horse, and their followers in the Sioux nation were hunters
and warriors on horseback, determined to hold their land against
the persistent invasion of white settlers who wanted to farm,
ranch, and build towns along the railroad lines racing westward
from the industrialized East and Midwest.

The Sioux won some battles, notably Little Big Horn in Montana, but
they lost the war. The Dakota Territory was divided into two
states, one north and one south, in 1889. My ancestors were among
the early settlers in what became South Dakota.

My father, Anthony Orville Brokaw, was born on October 17, 1912,
the last of ten children of William and Elizabeth Brokaw. His
grandfather Richard P. Brokaw, the descendant of Huguenots who
immigrated early to New York, had made his way to the southwestern
Dakota Territory by covered wagon following the Civil War. He
farmed and worked on the railroad before heading north in 1881 to
found the town of Bristol and a small hotel, the Brokaw House, at
the planned intersection of the north-south and east-west rail
lines, eight years before statehood.

My mother is the eldest daughter of Jim and Ethel Conley, who
farmed south of Bristol. Ethel took the train from Bristol to
Minneapolis, her hometown, for Jean's birth; then mother and
daughter returned to the remote corner of the prairie where Jim was
tilling the ground behind teams of horses.

In the summer of 1996 my mother and I returned to the northern
plains, the womb of her life and mine, for a visit that was at once
nostalgic, reassuring, and a commentary on the social and economic
changes in this country in the second half of the twentieth
century.

As we drove east along Highway 212 from Aberdeen, South Dakota,
toward Bristol, we passed a giant Wal-Mart with a parking lot full
of late-model cars and pickup trucks; there were expensive new
houses on large lots, and broad streets well beyond the city
limits; giant John Deere combines, worth more than $100,000 apiece,
moved efficiently through ripe fields of wheat, disgorging the
small, valuable kernels into a truck of the kind called a Twin
Hopper for its side-by-side bins that can hold a combined total of
one thousand bushels. Many of the combines have air-conditioning
and stereos in their cabs, to go with the computer monitoring
systems that record the yield while the harvest is under way. Many
of the smaller farms have been consolidated into larger tracts and
organized as corporations with sophisticated business models
relying on the efficiencies of mass production and the yield of
genetically engineered grains. Much has changed, but still, a
drought or a sudden hailstorm or a freak cold snap can undo all of
the best planning and agriculture science.

Modern technology hasn't completely eliminated what my mother
remembers of the sweat and heartache required for a farmer's life.
But it is a far different world than when I was a child. As a town
kid, I was attracted to the farm only by the prospect of a
horseback ride or the chance to drive a tractor. I had no
inclination for the work, much of it unending and involving
uncooperative livestock in a muck of mud and manure or working in
fields beneath a blazing sun.

South Dakota is two states, really, divided by the Missouri River.
In a larger sense, the river also divides the Midwest from the Far
West. East of the Missouri, in the midwestern half, small towns
shaded by trees planted a hundred years ago are separated by
clusters of farm buildings and quadrangles of tilled ground
producing corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, and sunflowers.

As you move across the Missouri, into what we call West River
country, the change is abrupt. On airplanes flying across South
Dakota east to west, I like to tell my fellow passengers to watch
the cultivated fields, the gold and green color schemes of corn and
wheat, suddenly give way to the muted browns and the untilled sod
once we cross the river. It is such a stunning change, it is as if
someone flipped a page, and then another change comes two hundred
miles farther. At the very western edge of the state, the prairie
breaks up into the arid and eerily beautiful Badlands and then
gives way to the Black Hills, a small scenic mountain range the
Sioux people called Paha Sapa, the most sacred of their land.

I have lived and traveled in every quarter of the state, and I am
constantly struck by the rawness of it all, even now, more than 125
years after the first significant wave of white settlers began
trying to tame it. Even a summer night in a substantial dwelling in
an established town can be a reminder of the primal forces of the
old Dakota Territory when a storm blows up, filling the sky with
mountainous thunderstorms and bowing the tall cottonwoods with cold
winds that seem to begin somewhere near the Arctic Circle.

I am particularly attached to the Missouri River, that ancient
artery that begins in central Montana and powers its way north
before beginning its long east-by-southeast trek across the flat
landscape of the Dakotas and along the borders of Iowa, Nebraska,
and Missouri. Large dams have slowed but not completely conquered
the river of Lewis and Clark, the Sioux, the Crow, Omaha, and
Santee tribes. Whenever I return to my home state I always try to
swim in the river channel, just to feel its restless currents
again, as a reminder of my early struggles to master them as a
beginning swimmer. They taught me to understand force and use it to
my advantage, taught me that to make progress often means giving a
little.

On this trip back to Bristol with my mother in 1996, as I steered
our rental car toward the distant eastern horizon, an old sensation
returned. Up there in the northern latitudes, less than two hundred
miles from the Canadian border, I feel as if I am riding the
curvature of the earth, silhouetted against the sweeping arc of sky
that so diminishes all below. I have now lived two thirds of my
life outside these familiar surroundings, yet whenever I return I
am at peace, and always a little excited to know that this place
has a claim on me.

I am named for my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Conley, the son
of Irish immigrants, who was working as a railroad conductor in St.
Paul when he was attracted by the abundance of affordable farmland
in Day County, South Dakota. Tom and his wife, Mathilda, moved in
1897 to Webster, the Day County seat, where Tom opened a saloon
before moving on to a section and a half of prairie, 960 acres,
southwest of Bristol, where together he and Mathilda began farming
with horse-drawn machinery.

Tom Conley, at six feet a tall man in those days, quickly
established a reputation as a hardworking and efficient farmer who,
according to local lore, took off only one day a year: the Fourth
of July. On Independence Day he'd drive a horse-drawn wagon from
the farm to Bristol's main street for the celebrations, shouting to
everyone, "Hurray for the Fourth of July!"

Tom and Mathilda Conley prospered in the early days of the
twentieth century, sending three of their four sons to college. One
went on to law school and another to medical school. My mother's
father, Jim, graduated from a pharmacy college in Minneapolis, but
he preferred farming to pharmacy and returned to Day County with
his bride, Ethel Baker, a handsome and lively daughter of a foreman
at Pillsbury Mills in the Twin Cities. As a wedding present, Tom
Conley gave his son and new wife as a wedding present a mortgaged
quarter-section, 160 treeless acres just north of his farm. It was
so barren that Jim Conley often said it contained not even a rusty
nail; black-and-white pictures from that time are startling in
their bleakness.

A quarter-section of land was the allotment that the seminal figure
of prairie literature, Per Hansa, filed for when he took his family
into the Dakota Territory, in O. E. Rolvaag's classic Giants in the
Earth. Powerful winds, broad horizons, "And sun! And still more
sun!"-as Rolvaag vividly described this part of America that
stretches from the Canadian border to Oklahoma, from Minnesota to
the middle of Montana.

It was little changed in the first quarter of the twentieth
century, when my parents were youngsters. Just as for Per Hansa and
his fellow Norwegian settlers, it was a demanding place, whatever
the season, for those who came to farm or to establish the small
towns where agriculture and commerce intersected across the
grassland. It is a place that reflects a century of transformation
in America.

When my mother was born, in November 1917, the world was in
turmoil. That same month Lenin took control of the Russian
government and the Communist revolution was under way. America
entered World War I at last, and General John Pershing led American
forces into Europe. The war was an international tragedy but a
bonanza for American farmers, as they moved into mechanized
equipment and turned their grain fields into the bread basket of
the world. Farmland in the heart of the corn belt brought prices
two and three times what they had been just three years
earlier.

Jim and Ethel were making enough money to start a new home and buy
a Model T, the little black car that was the centerpiece of Henry
Ford's rapidly growing empire. Neither of my grandparents left
behind a personal account of their hopes and dreams, but I suspect
they thought the farm would become their life work. Instead, it
became a heartbreaking burden.

By 1930 they were trapped between a prolonged drought across the
Great Plains and economic chaos in the international markets. Jim
and Ethel, my mother, Jean, and her younger sister, Marcia, were
hostage to the cruelties of what came to be known as the Great
Depression. Between 1929 and 1932, the average net per capita
income on family farms fell from $2,297 to $74.

Jim Conley admired Herbert Hoover, a native of nearby Iowa and a
brilliant mining engineer who was an international hero for his
organization of food programs for Europe following the devastation
of World War I. It is likely that Jim voted for Hoover in the 1928
presidential election. But what happened in the thirties would make
my grandfather an ardent Democrat for his remaining days.

Jim and Ethel Conley's hopes for a long life on the farm were wiped
out. By 1932, Jim was feeding his corn crop to his hogs because
doing so was more economical than taking it to market, where it
would have brought less than a nickel a bushel. By my mother's
junior year in high school, the Conley farm days were over. The
bank foreclosed and the family moved to nearby Bristol.

Because my parents came of age during the Great Depression, it
never completely left their consciousness. It would be too
melodramatic to say they carried lasting scars, but it would be
equally inaccurate to describe the Depression as just a benign
passage in their lives. The residual effect went well beyond the
bleak economics of the time. Living through the Great Depression
formed other lasting values: an unalloyed work ethic, thrift,
compassion, and, perhaps most important,
perspective.

Excerpted from A LONG WAY FROM HOME © Copyright 2002 by
Tom Brokaw. Reprinted with permission by Random House. All rights
reserved.

 

A Long Way From Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
by by Tom Brokaw

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0375759352
  • ISBN-13: 9780375759352