Paola, Kansas, is a nano-town with 150 people and approximately 200 churches. This is the belly of the Bible Belt. Rumor has it that they handle snakes over in Parker. Although this is unconfirmed.
Right now I am in a building that was built in 1917. It was originally a convent school. Nuns once lived here. Today it’s a community center.
Currently I am standing on a stage performing my one-man trainwreck in the 34th State this evening. And I’m pretty emotional about it.
I’ve performed in 40 states, but this is the first time I’ve done my show in Kansas.
It’s weird being here. Namely, because my father was a Kansan. He was born in Iola. He grew up in Humboldt. He was “Kansas white trash” he always said. Kansas is where he began his life. And Kansas is where I started mine.
His funeral was held one county over.
My old man was an ironworker. They called guys like my father “boomers.” This meant he traveled wherever the work was. We moved seven times in my first six years of life. We had no roots. No foundation.
For a time this was my home. I learned to play baseball in Kansas. I went to school here. I first couple-skated here. I first tried Red Man Chew on the back of daddy’s Ford, parked in Allen County, whereupon I puked for a solid hour.
My father lost his mind in Kansas. He was arrested in Leavenworth County, Kansas, for attempted murder of his wife and children.
The next morning, after being released on bail, he died by his own hand. The news of his self-inflicted death made the front page of the local papers.
We left Kansas when I was a child. I am not familiar with this land anymore. I don’t know it. My mother made me a Southerner. My aunts and uncles raised me. And in some ways this state became like Vietnam to me. Soldiers don’t go back to Vietnam.
And yet here I am.
My green room is outfitted with snacks and gifts. There is a Kansas plaque that is packaged in gift wrapping.
“Welcome to Kansas,” the card reads.
And I’m crying. I’m looking out the windows. People are arriving in the parking lot. They tell me it’s a full-house theater tonight. There must not be much to do in Paola on a weekend night.
The show begins. I step toward the mic. I tell my jokes. I sing my songs. The audience laughs in all the right places. They sing along.
And then it’s time to hug necks. The meet-and-greet line is long. The people have come from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, and Missouri.
A woman from Parkville, Missouri, tells me her son is my age, his father died the same way mine did. In the same town.
Another man from Dallas tells me his wife died of the same horror.
A woman from Lincoln tells me her son was an Army veteran who died by suicide.
A man from Tulsa says his wife hung herself in the bathroom and was discovered by their 10-year-old son.
Then I see Brother Tom. The same man who, 30 years ago, broke the news to me about my own father’s untimely end.
I remember the fateful September night when Tom sat on our family fireplace, and he told me, “Your father took his own life.”
Brother Tom is older now. His hair is silver. But his eyes are the same, bright and quick. I hug him and I weep into his shoulder. Hard. It’s a snot-sucking cry. The kind of cry where you moan and wail.
He grabs my face in his hands and shouts over the din of the crowd: “I love you, I love you, I love you…”
I meet the music minister who taught me to sing. I meet the woman who taught me in Sunday school. I meet the lady who taught my 4th grade class and was about as much fun as a coronary event.
My dad’s best friend. My childhood classmates. My old choir director. My dad’s coworkers. My father’s cousins. Distant relatives. Faces and names I’ve almost forgotten. People I’ve never met before.
My whole life is happening right now. This is a homecoming of the nth degree.
Another elderly woman comes through the line. She is small and bent. I have never met her. She uses a walker.
The old woman grips my chin and kisses my forehead. She says, “Every day, child. Every day I have prayed for you. For thirty years, I have prayed for you. And I’ll never quit. Not as long as I have breath.”
It was quite a night in Paola, Kansas.
Becky Souders - May 1, 2023 6:42 pm
All that love, Sean Dietrich. You are blessed.
2funnie - May 1, 2023 10:21 pm
It was a night we will remember always💛
Cathy M - May 2, 2023 7:58 pm
It’s hard to go back and revisit the place where your heart was broken. Maybe it’s a cleansing experience. I just know that you Sean, have come a long way baby. I am proud to follow you and your life. I am asking for a week end in Nashville for my birthday in May. I can’t think of a better gift for a 75th birthday❤️💕