Hello, Kansas. Nice to see you. It’s been a long time. You’re just as lovely as you used to be.
I’m driving through your prairies, the sun is setting over the wheat. The small towns are nothing but grain elevators and high-school baseball fields. And I’m remembering too much.
Namely, I remembering the way my daddy listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast on Saturday nights in a Kansas shed. I remember how he loved Minnie Pearl.
Whenever Minnie would say, “I’m jest proud to be here,” he’d slap his knee. Because when her voice came on the air, we knew she was going to say that.
He used that same corny phrase ten times per day. Until I was sick of it. He used it at baseball practice, supper tables, and even when he shook THE ACTUAL Minnie Pearl’s hand.
So yeah, I remember a lot, Kansas. I remember the place where I hit my first in-the-park home run, not far from here.
My father was clapping, and shouting. He was wearing a Little League T-shirt, spitting sunflower seeds.
I ran the bases.
Roy Wallace was catcher. By the time I reached home plate, he had the ball in his mit.
Daddy shouted, “Mow his ass over, boy!”
So I did. I slid into Roy like a windmill in a tornado. My uniform was covered in dirt.
My father screamed, “HOW-DEEEEEEEE!”
I was fifteen feet tall.
Kansas. I hated you for a long time. My father left this world by way of his own gun, and he did it here. After we left this place, we never came back. And never wanted to.
In fact, I almost didn’t come today. I almost cut through Oklahoma on my way home.
I’m glad I didn’t. Because I would’ve missed the painted sunset behind Coolidge. I would’ve missed the golden fields of Syracuse, Deerfield, Lakin, or Garden City. I bought sunflower seeds in Cimarron and chewed through a whole bag until Dodge.
The day of Daddy’s funeral, his Kansan family sat on the opposite end of the chapel. My grandparents said nothing to me. Nothing.
His kin said even less. They couldn’t find words, I guess. Suicide is dirty, nobody knows how to talk about it.
Then, after the funeral, we never saw his family again. Not a single one of them. No phone calls, no Christmas cards.
And that’s why Mama left you so soon. We were glad to get off your soil. No. We were grateful to be with family Down South.
And I grew up in a place that loved me. I tasted beer in a peanut field near Andalusia. I had my first kiss in Georgia.
Your prairies were a blip on the television screen of me. And I’m a stranger here, a foreigner. I have my own family, my own life, and it’s a good one. And I haven’t thought of you again, Kansas.
This morning, I was in a hotel in Salina. In the elevator was an older couple. The silver-haired woman kept looking at me, I could see her staring, from the corner of my eye.
Finally, the woman said, “Excuse me, but you look so familiar…” Then she smiled. “Are you ‘Sean of the South?’”
I almost choked.
They were from Pensacola, Florida. They talked just like I do. They pull for the same college football team I do. We got our picture made together, right in the elevator. They hugged me.
The woman said, “We’re so proud of you.”
And my eyes got waterlogged. I sort of made a fool of myself.
Before we parted ways, they said, “What’re you doing all the way out here in Kansas?”
The truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing here. Could be, I just wanted to see where my father came from. Or maybe, I’m just trying to remember a home run I once hit in a wheat field—and the look on Roy’s face when I plowed into him.
Maybe I’m trying to touch the steelworker, son-of-a-dirt-farmer who died too young. My daddy. A Kansan who almost ruined our lives, even though I loved him.
I don’t know, Kansas. I really don’t.
But I’m just proud to be here.