my great-great-grandfathers, Christopher Columbus Clark, had been a decorated Union soldier, his wife’s
mother was rumored to have been a second cousin of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; that
although another distant ancestor had indeed been a full-blooded Cherokee, such lineage was a source of
considerable shame to Toot’s mother, who blanched whenever someone mentioned the subject and hoped
to carry the secret to her grave.
That was the world in which my grandparents had been raised, the dab-smack, landlocked center of
the country, a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with
conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty. They had grown up less than twenty miles
away from each other-my grandmother in Augusta, my grandfather in El Dorado, towns too small to warrant
boldface on a road map-and the childhoods they liked to recall for my benefit portrayed small-town,
Depression-era America in all its innocent glory: Fourth of July parades and the picture shows on the side of
a barn; fireflies in a jar and the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes, sweet as apples; dust storms and hailstorms and
classrooms filled with farm boys who got sewn into their woolen underwear at the beginning of winter and
stank like pigs as the months wore on.
Even the trauma of bank failures and farm foreclosures seemed romantic when spun through the loom
of my grandparents’ memories, a time when hardship, the great leveler that had brought people closer
together, was shared by all. So you had to listen carefully to recognize the subtle hierarchies and unspoken
codes that had policed their early lives, the distinctions of people who don’t have a lot and live in the middle
of nowhere. It had to do with something called respectability-there were respectable people and not-so-
respectable people-and although you didn’t have to be rich to be respectable, you sure had to work harder
at it if you weren’t.
Toot’s family was respectable. Her father held a steady job all through the Depression, managing an oil
lease for Standard Oil. Her mother had taught normal school before the children were born. The family kept
their house spotless and ordered Great Books through the mail; they read the Bible but generally shunned
the tent revival circuit, preferring a straight-backed form of Methodism that valued reason over passion and
temperance over both.
My grandfather’s station was more troublesome. Nobody was sure why-the grandparents who had
raised him and his older brother weren’t very well off, but they were decent, God-fearing Baptists,
supporting themselves with work in the oil rigs around Wichita. Somehow, though, Gramps had turned out a
bit wild. Some of the neighbors pointed to his mother’s suicide: it was Stanley, after all, then only eight years
old, who had found her body. Other, less charitable, souls would simply shake their heads: The boy takes
after his philandering father, they would opine, the undoubtable cause of the mother’s unfortunate demise.
Whatever the reason, Gramps’s reputation was apparently well deserved. By the age of fifteen he’d
been thrown out of high school for punching the principal in the nose. For the next three years he lived off
odd jobs, hopping rail cars to Chicago, then California, then back again, dabbling in moonshine, cards, and
women. As he liked to tell it, he knew his way around Wichita, where both his and Toot’s families had
moved by that time, and Toot doesn’t contradict him; certainly, Toot’s parents believed the stories that
they’d heard about the young man and strongly disapproved of the budding courtship. The first time Toot
brought Gramps over to her house to meet the family, her father took one look at my grandfather’s black,
slicked-back hair and his perpetual wise-guy grin and offered his unvarnished assessment.
“He looks like a wop.”
My grandmother didn’t care. To her, a home economics major fresh out of high school and tired of
respectability, my grandfather must have cut a dashing figure. I sometimes imagine them in every American
town in those years before the war, him in baggy pants and a starched undershirt, brim hat cocked back on
his head, offering a cigarette to this smart-talking girl with too much red lipstick and hair dyed blond and legs
nice enough to model hosiery for the local department store. He’s telling her about the big cities, the
endless highway, his imminent escape from the empty, dust-ridden plains, where big plans mean a job as a
bank manager and entertainment means an ice-cream soda and a Sunday matinee, where fear and lack of
imagination choke your dreams so that you already know on the day that you’re born just where you’ll die
and who it is that’ll bury you. He won’t end up like that, my grandfather insists; he has dreams, he has
plans; he will infect my grandmother with the great peripatetic itch that had brought both their forebears
across the Atlantic and half of a continent so many years before.
They eloped just in time for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and my grandfather enlisted. And at this point
the story quickens in my mind like one of those old movies that show a wall calendar’s pages peeled back
faster and faster by invisible hands, the headlines of Hitler and Churchill and Roosevelt and Normandy