My parents were from there and, to hear them tell it, Wichita was an idyllic place to grow up. Wichita people were honest, friendly and levelheaded, unlike so many around us in New Jersey, said my folks. The schools were far superior, just ask some of my aunts! Even the corn was better.
Almost every summer, my dad packed us all in our un-air-conditioned Nash, and we headed west for 1700 miles of pure bliss. We looked forward to this trip all year. Just my mom and dad, my brother, the dog, sometimes my grandmother and cousin, me, a big metal cooler and couple of hundred pounds of luggage. My brother and I packed our little bags with coloring books, crayons and other things we could torment one another with. The dog just hung out the window.
Once we got there, we spent a few weeks going from one relative’s house to another, eating in backyards, oohing and aahing over everyone’s gardens and the height of their children. Our aunts and uncles took us to the zoo and the park along the river. We got to eat Nu-Ways, drink Waco (later known as Dr. Pepper) and eat Steffen’s ice cream, right out of the vats because one of our uncles was a milkman. We had lots of kids to play with, and that was great.
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Fast forward a few decades, and I took my son to Wichita a few times, hoping he could catch a little of the joy I remembered. It didn’t work. The aunts and uncles were old, and so were their kids. Still, we retread many of the old steps and carved a short vacation out of a fading family backdrop.
Today, I live in a strange little corner of New England where many people are from Kansas or have relatives there. It shouldn't be such a surprise, since people from this area were some of the first to settle eastern Kansas before the Civil War, part of a drive to insure the territory would enter the union as a free state. My family homesteaded there after the war, and then again just before WWI. The sacrifices these people made paid off, but the term Bloody Kansas tells the tale.
Last week, the last of my aunts died, at age 93. She’ll be buried today. Yesterday, a physician was shot to death in the entryway of a Wichita church while he was handing out bulletins to parishioners. Why? He gave legal and professionally acceptable medical treatment to women who wanted to end pregnancies. His work angered many in and out of the community, including hate-television commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has been after this doc on the air for years, describing the man as a Nazi and baby-killer. The shooter, who appeared to be acting on his own, was caught several hours later near Kansas City.
I have no interest in going to Wichita anymore. There’s nothing left for me there. It’s not the center of my universe -- if it ever was -- and it looks as if the people aren’t so friendly or levelheaded after all. I even question the quality of its schools. And, I can get good corn here.