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