widening my american horizons
For ten years I’ve lived in the Shenandoah Valley, enjoying it so much that when my son whom I came from England to live near, moved to Kansas, I chose to stay here. I’m keenly aware of this vast beautiful country extending from Virginia to California (twice visited) in the west and Montana in the north and I’ve another son and family in Arizona, but there are so many places in America I yearn to explore. When I told Virginian friends “I’m going on holiday to Kansas,” they mostly said “Huh.” I think it’s something to do with the fact that Kansas hasn’t got mountains.
That was brunch
perfect view of Kansas ball game
Grey tree frog
Granny and the boys at the baseball game
Andre's ribs on the barbecue in Kansas
But Kansas has a lot to offer and is not as flat as it’s reputed to be. Despite its lack of mountains there are small hills and banks rolling along the wide Missouri River lined by many kinds of trees, green countryside with modern elegant houses, at least on this side of town. The state border with Missouri runs by my son’s garden. Two poisonous copperhead snakes have been found in neighbors’ gardens this summer. A grey tree frog, bats and a box turtle live on his patio. The houses are large and stately on two acre plots. Towards Kansas City, handsome brick built shopping centers include the usual chain stores like Barnes & Noble Books, Walgreen’s Pharmacy, as well as many venues for gym, Marshal arts, dancing, boxing and Pilates.
The grocery store we go to is Price Chopper, inside a feast for the eyes and reasonably priced, besides giving Harrods’ Food Hall a run for its money. I could happily spend hours browsing the goods on display: a vast selection of fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood including my favorite king crabs and mussels, shelves full of barbecue rubs for the ubiquitous Kansas ribs and luxury groceries of all kinds saying “Buy me!” while I answer feebly, “I haven’t room in my suitcase to take you-all.”
Driving home, twice we pause for daily freight trains to pass, my grandsons counting 136 identical carriages with an engine at both ends – is it coal, going north or south? Crops in the fields are mostly soya beans and corn, ready to harvest ahead of Virginia’s crop.
There are many attractions in Kansas. One day the family went to World of Fun and rode the world class big dipper, enjoying all the rides with stomachs churning and walking miles while I relished my quieter pleasures with books and iPad at home. Another day Andre took us to a petting farm of great charm, Deanna Rose Farm, with displays of old fashioned buildings; a school house containing desks like the fixed ones I used seventy years ago, with a woodstove heater in the middle; old school pictures on the walls. A pretty, long-skirted school mistress shows the boys her cane but promises not to whack them. She chats intelligently and we linger a moment.
A blacksmith in his workshop talks to visitors, his hammer in hand, furnace and tools behind him. I remind the boys that my great grandfather was a village blacksmith in the north of England. An old fashioned store with assistants in costume sells candies at a quarter each, and tourist souvenirs. At a bank where I expect the Sundance Kid to burst in, commanding the clerk “Manos arriba!” we learn how robbers on horseback failed to haul away the heavy steel safe with its foot thick door, beyond the street outside. “If robbers tried to drill into the safe there was a built-in layer of magnesium which would catch fire and burn the money.” I felt like an investor being reassured. You could tell that bank robbers didn’t have it easy.
My grandsons pan for gold at the mine with prepacked bags of rubble containing quartz, amethyst, pyrites and other precious fragments at $5 a bag. They bottle-feed young goats; admire horses and ducks, anglers by a pond, a bandwagon giving rides around the grounds on several acres with broad winding footpaths and benches shaded by trees. The boys queue for cookie-dough- and-caramel ice creams. Mothers with young children chat while their children explore the exhibits and I watch with interest, sitting on a shaded bench. It’s an enjoyable day out for all.
We have lovely family meals. My son and his wife are gourmet cooks and this summer I’ve been teaching Connor and Jake to cook a range of dishes. They make meat balls and pasta, spicy chicken wings, pumpkin pie and vegetable kebabs. Their father grills ribs on the barbecue. Their stepmother produces delicious salads, raspberry muffins, pancakes and bacon for breakfast. At the table we have our usual conversation, each relating the best and worst of his day. Connor says “The worst thing was feeling sick at World of Fun and the best thing was the rides at World of Fun.” The boys all lay the table and help to clear away afterwards.
A couple of thunder storms, one during the night, throw down lightning and rainy squalls and then suddenly pass. After a while the heat resumes, most days in the 90’s. I wonder why we can’t grow Crape myrtle bushes in England and my son tells me they need a night time temperature of 70 degrees to bloom. Air-conditioning cools us instantly inside. When we go to the ball game there’s a welcome evening breeze at the top of the stand.
The match is between Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox, in a magnificent stadium. We’ve bought team shirts for the boys in advance. We were lucky to get seats affording a commanding view from the top of the center stand. It’s a sell-out. Mercifully there’s an escalator to every level and the match has begun when we arrive slightly late in a constant stream of late-comers. It starts at 6 p.m. like the bullfight in Spain, and generates as much excitement. I climb to the top level, Row W, and knowing my tendency to vertigo sit safely, before I look down, momentarily dizzy. The panorama is exhilarating.
An immaculate field, neatly cross-mown, is below us with deployed players an inch high. Jake measures them with his fingers. Our team wears white with blue caps and Chicago is in grey. As evening draws on, floodlights illuminate the arena, red and blue fountains play on the periphery wall between rounds. On the screen directly across from us, the players’ portraits and provenance are displayed, 40ft tall. The majority are Hispanic, the expressions on their handsome faces clearly visible.
The constant chatter of the crowd in holiday mood swells to a roar when the ball connects with the bat. Several balls land amongst the crowd and are not returned: fair game. An organ keyboard raps out a rhythm to which the crowd responds, clapping briskly. Signs light up with the message: “Make noise!” and the crowd cheers. “Louder!” gets them shouting, whooping, whistling. Yay! For the first time in my life I’m rising in a Mexican wave.
A constant stream of vendors with trays climbs the terraces offering ice cream, bottled water, crushed ice, beer, soda, candy floss. They must be Olympic-fit to work these steps. On the terrace below, encircling the stand, vendors sell foot long hot dogs smothered in delicious mustard relish, KFC, fries, noodles and other crowd-fillers at inflated prices. The seats in this magnificent arena already cost a family’s weekly food budget. I begin to grasp why businessmen buy teams, and how their players achieve stardom and wealth. I haven’t seen a more enjoyable public event since I thrilled to horse racing at Newmarket in East Anglia.
Birds fly level with us, swooping as the lights gradually brighten to illuminate the dark. The game is tightly fought and Kansas wins by one point. At least I think it does because we leave 15 minutes before the end to avoid being hustled down the steps in a rush. It still takes half an hour to get out of the crowded car park, where Jake holds my hand tightly, yet one more blue-shirted boy among thousands, too precious to lose. Connor at 12 is too grown-up to hold hands, but he’s our careful shadow.
Jake learned a new meaning to “atmosphere.” He could already spell it but now he understands why professional baseball is more exciting than Little League, although his experience enabled him to explain the sport’s finer points to me. They are my ideal companions.
The ball game was the highlight of my holiday and now I’m a Fan.
All the photos were provided by the author.