My father was himself here, on these bajillion acres. Everywhere else, he was someone different.

Humboldt, Kansas, sits on infinite prairie. Here, summer is in its early stages. The wheat is perfect. The sun is merciless. The Queen Anne style farmhouses are pure Mayberry.

I spent all afternoon looking for the farmhouse my father was born in.

I hoped that my father would give me some sort of sign when I visited his birthplace.

I drove dirt roads until my car was covered in dust. I stopped at Johnson’s General Store for directions. The woman behind the counter was ringing up an old man in camouflage.

“I’m looking for the Dietrich place,” I said.

The old man smiled. He said, “You’re kin to Douglas, ain’t you? That makes you distant kin to my dad’s family, sorta.”

Sort of.

The next thing I knew, he was giving me country directions, complete with hand gestures and cuss words.

I drove every road in Allen County, but couldn’t find the right house. And no signs from above, either.

So I stopped at a home in the middle of a cattle pasture. A young woman answered the door. She was pregnant.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” I told her. “I’m looking for the Dietrich house.”

She shook her head. “Dunno where that is, but my dad will know, lemme call him.”

She handed me her cellphone. I had a conversation with her father. Before we hung up, he said, “You know, my aunt was cousins with your uncle, that makes us cousins, sort of.”

How about that.

I drove past low creeks and wide prairies. I didn’t see another car for a hundred miles. And no family farmhouse.

I stopped at a ratty trailer on an eighteen-thousand-acre cornfield. An old woman was sitting on her rotting porch, enjoying a cigarette.

“You’re a Dietrich?” she said in a hoarse voice. “A Dietrich married my cousin’s daughter, which would mean we’re almost kin.”

Almost.

She stabbed out her smoke, then turned on her oxygen machine. She gave me directions.

And I finally found it.

Only, there was no “it.” The house wasn’t standing, the barn was splinters. The wheat fields had gone to weed. And I felt sick. I came nine hundred miles to Kansas to see a sign; all I got was wreckage.

I tried to work up a few good memories:

Once, I sat on the old farmhouse porch and watched my father bale hay with his uncle Lawrence.

Lawrence was a big man with calloused hands, happy face, and loud laugh. So was my grandfather. So was my father. They could hold their liquor, and they liked to demonstrate this for those watching.

My father was himself here, on these bajillion acres. Everywhere else, he was someone different.

At church, he used clean language, Brylcreem, and neckties. But that wasn’t him. At home, he was a breadwinner, a husband, a groundskeeper, and a shade-tree mechanic. But that wasn’t him.

Here, he was “Johnny.” When he was in Humboldt he was a boy even when he was a man.

It was here that he learned to shoot a rifle, aiming at soup cans. It was here that he played catch after sunset and the ball hit him in the mouth. It was here.

I ate dinner at Opie’s Cafe in the downtown—if you can call it a “downtown.” It’s a small place with simple, country food. I took my dog for a walk, and saw the church where my father got baptized.

I met a man who was mowing his lawn.

“I remember the Dietrich’s,” he said. “I worked at the Gate’s factory with Lawrence.” He shook my hand. “My mother was distant kin to the Dietrichs.”

On my way out of town, I was lost in my own thoughts. I watched the sun lower behind the Kansan fields of gold and green. I came to a four-way stop. I pulled over and watched the sun go down.

A Crawford County deputy rolled beside me. We shook hands and watched the sunset together. He rolled away. The crickets came out. Then the lightning bugs. The stars.

And I drove out of Kansas for the second time in my life. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Maybe never. I came here to see the remains of a dead man, maybe even stumble upon a sign from above. What I got was a lot of smiles and back-road directions.

And this:

No matter who you are or where you hail from, we’re family. Sort of.

Goodnight, family.

25 comments

  1. Nancy - June 12, 2018 6:26 am

    We went n a search for my husband’s family in June. They were from Humboldt NE, a place very much like yours. They had a pretty nice town though.

    Reply
  2. Lisa P - June 12, 2018 11:36 am

    This struck a chord with me…. just insert me instead…. “here, she was herself, everywhere else, she was someone different.” :/

    Reply
    • Joyce Jay Mills - June 12, 2018 4:26 pm

      YES

      Reply
  3. Kathy - June 12, 2018 12:05 pm

    💙❤️

    Reply
  4. Bonnie - June 12, 2018 12:54 pm

    This was how it would be in our little town in Georgia “SORTA”……lol..enjoyed this story!!

    Reply
  5. Laura - June 12, 2018 1:23 pm

    I remember well the first time I visited my grandparents’ old homestead many years after they died. The barn was down and the house there was barely standing. It made me cry. I looked at empty fields where Granddaddy had plowed with a mule and I had, as a child, picked cotton for 3 pennies a pound (he knew he wouldn’t owe much to an 8 yr old). I saw remnants of the old scuppernong vines where wasps chased us from where Grandmother had warned us not to go. The old outhouse was gone along with outbuildings I had climbed despite warnings not to. I stood remembering the barn where I had picked dried peanuts from the hay bales in the loft and ground corn to feed the chickens and gather their eggs was all gone. Time has a way of not just destroying things but hurting memories too.

    Reply
    • Bill T - June 13, 2018 12:55 am

      To Laura; you must be from Alabama (picking peanuts from the bales in the barn). Me too.

      Reply
  6. Annie - June 12, 2018 1:24 pm

    So glad you got to see it.

    Reply
  7. Linda Sorger - June 12, 2018 1:32 pm

    Liked your ending -“We’re all family -sort of” And “Good Night family”. It’s nice to be connected. Sorry you did not find what you were searching for-were disappointed, but you did find other things. I’m a new fan of your column. My sister who lives in Birmingham turned me on to it. I live in Yankee land now – New York – but hail from the South. My family originated from Alabama.

    Linda June 12, 2018

    Reply
  8. Debra Lawrence - June 12, 2018 1:40 pm

    Dear Sean,
    My husband and I love your reading columns, and were just recently discussing how we refer to you now as just “Sean” – as if you are someone we actually know. We enjoy your writing with our morning coffee and sometimes after supper. Very often one of us reads your article out loud as we are traveling from Tennessee to Alabama or Arkansas. Reading “Sean” has become a part of our everyday life, so maybe we do actually know you. Who knows, we may be sorta related!

    Reply
  9. Jacque White Kochak - June 12, 2018 1:48 pm

    That’s my Kansas!

    Reply
  10. Judy - June 12, 2018 1:56 pm

    Thanks Sean, I look forward to reading your daily posts. Yes, you are family So

    Reply
  11. Edna B. - June 12, 2018 2:12 pm

    I love this story. Years ago, I went back to see my childhood home. Things were so different. Sad how time doesn’t wait for us. And yeah, somehow we’re all sort of related. That’s nice. You have a super day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  12. Julie Y - June 12, 2018 2:44 pm

    While I was reading, every time someone said to you, “We’re kin” I thought, “That’s a sign from your daddy, Sean!” Seems to me like you got a whole lot of them while you were there. I love reading your words every morning and am becoming a kinder, more aware person because of them.

    Reply
    • Debra Lawrence - June 12, 2018 7:03 pm

      I think you are right, Julie Y!

      Reply
  13. Frank - June 12, 2018 3:30 pm

    I still visit my Dad’s farm in northern Wisconsin once in a while. Dad is gone. The barn is gone. The silo is gone. The house is gone. But, he’s still there. Sort of. I get it.

    I’ll tell you this much, Sean Dietrich. I’d be proud to call you a member of my family. No “sort of” necessary.

    Reply
  14. Jack Quanstrum - June 12, 2018 3:33 pm

    Searching for understanding is a good thing! Excellent read!

    Reply
    • LARRY WALL - June 12, 2018 7:36 pm

      Yes, Jack, it is. And we are all searching for that understanding until our very last breath. And we will never understand it all. But that is a good thing, too. It helps keep us alive, in every respect.

      Reply
  15. Jan Coykendall - June 12, 2018 3:58 pm

    I am Jan Clements Coykendall, grew up with the Dietrich Family, Carl, Lawrence, Cecilia, Leo, their mother and dad John and Mrs Dietrich (do not believe I ever knew her given name.). Carl and my brother were close friends, Lawrence and his wife Delpha and my sister and her husband were good friends. This brings back lots of memories of going to the Oakland Rural School. Yep, the house is gone, either Ash Grove Cement, Chanute, or Monarch Cement, Humboldt bought the farm for rocks. Wish I could have seen you and shown you around, I was manager of Johnson’s General Store and Supervisor for 32 years, have been retired for 10 years. So sorry for your bad experience, and no we are not related, lol.

    Reply
  16. Gregg Gleason - June 12, 2018 5:17 pm

    Sean, I get back to Kansas each spring since I still have family and friends there. I was not far from Humboldt in May when I visited a friend who lives just north of Iola. I always enjoy stopping in small towns for lunch and talking with the people there.

    Reply
  17. Maxine - June 12, 2018 7:46 pm

    Goodnight, brother. I’ve seen the splintered barn and the house burned by an arsonist. The house where I was born. Keep writing, Sean, you are one of the good ones in this world these days.

    Reply
  18. LARRY WALL - June 12, 2018 7:55 pm

    Sean, you have heard from me several times over the last couple of years that I have been following you and I like every post you write. But this one is one of the most poignant and truthfully revealing posts ever. Only my humble opinion, of course. It is all of humankind’s story. We are always searching for our roots.

    Reply
  19. Leslie Schmidt - June 13, 2018 1:48 pm

    I’m glad we are family

    Reply
  20. Dru - June 13, 2018 11:29 pm

    Sean, my husband and I saved my grandparents’ six-generation farmhouse from falling down, and I am glad of it though the cost in many ways has been high. As much as I love being there and remembering, it is better still to run into an even distant relative, someone who remembers the people I loved and loved them, too. I think you are going to find more of your family. P.S. I’ll bet that you, like me, were blown away by “Field of Dreams.”

    Reply
  21. paula jones - June 14, 2018 12:24 pm

    O, that we could understand this truth deeply on a worldwide level.

    Reply

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