Returning home at the end of her Freshman Year at Sarah Lawrence was simple enough, getting used to waking up in the overly wide, double bed of her childhood was not. From the moment she stepped from the train in Kansas City, Dorothy Gale felt …different. Despite the comforting familiarity of places and people from her childhood, there was a certain darkness to the place she once called home. Like the echo of a door being slammed in an empty house, Dorothy found herself feeling tense when everyone else was laughing and anxious when they were silent. Fortunately, life’s everyday routines have the power to wear away the jagged edges that are created by worry and stress. Once the novelty of being home after a significant absence wore off, Dorothy began to find the rhythm of her old life in Kansas, and so finally, a little more than a week since returning, she began to feel at home.
Lying on her right side, Dorothy Gale stared out the open window, the glow of sunrise washing out the bedroom shadows, morning farm-sounds drowning out the secret creaks and furtive random sounds of night. Once the door into daytime opened enough to banish the night stars, Dorothy relaxed. Nighttime was not her friend. Since more than two years before, when ‘the Storm of ’37’, (an F5 tornado), changed both the landscape and the lives of the small farm community of Circe, Kansas, Dorothy feared night’s embrace. Although not the only one to be traumatized, after that dark Wednesday afternoon, Dorothy Gale became something of a celebrity, as ‘the Girl Who Rode the Cyclone’. Suffering little in the way of physical injury, Dorothy carried, nearly to term, the dream of a place where she found everything she believed was missing from her life. Her family, seduced by her guileless and naive desire to share her dream, ignored the consequences of supporting her delusion, preferring to offer the appearance of accepting her story at face value. Small towns and rural communities tend to rally in the wake of a disaster, overlooking things that, under more ordinary circumstances, would have inspired criticism, even censure, all in service to the communal effort to recover from whatever damage it suffered. And so, in the immediate days following the Storm of ’37, men and women would pause in their back-breaking, (and, all too often, heart-breaking), labors to listen to the brown-haired girl in the blue check dress, tell of a place of wonder and intrigue. The momentary escape serving everyone well. But, with time, (and hard work), normal life returned to Circe and the townspeople had less time, and frankly, less need, for the diversion of a charming, if not eccentric young girl and her tales of a place of wonder and intrigue. Unfortunately, the storyteller is usually the last to notice that their story no longer enthralls the listener. This seems inevitable, as the best of storytellers do not recite a tale as much as they re-live (imaginary) events, and so Dorothy continued telling of her adventures in an exotic and faraway place, well past the time that people tired of hearing of them. It fell to her Aunt and Uncle to help Dorothy Gale accept that her life was in Circe, Kansas and that to continue sharing her dream was every bit as tiring-approaching-annoying as the company of the expatriate, who in self-imposed exile, can’t seem to stop talking about the country they rejected.
As the old adage holds, time heals all wounds. What the adage overlooks, in it’s effort for therapeutic simplicity, is that some wounds leave scars. And some scars, not only never go away, but twist the course of life for the person wearing them. Like a slightly warped cue stick in the hands of a new player, it’s distortion is not necessarily noticed, at least not directly. If the person insists on continuing to practice the sport, using only this cue stick, they will develop a style that allows for the distortion that, un-noticed, still affects how they play. And so it was with Dorothy Gale, an intelligent, resourceful and determined girl, she learned to stop telling people about what happened to her after the Storm of ’37 and the people of Circe no longer stopped talking when she’d walk into the drugstore. The hard-working citizens of Circe eventually let go of their need to stare in her direction, as she walked across the Town Square, no longer staring at the young, well-dressed girl with a ready smile and an optimistic disposition, as if waiting for her to do something…odd.
Dorothy finished her last year in the newly re-built high school, (with the surprising dedication to a seemingly unlikely benefactor), and tried to make the best decision as to which road she should go down. Graduation Day had a way of taking away the treasure maps of childhood and replacing them with barely decipherable charts that implied help in plotting a course into adulthood. The life choices and options Dorothy Gale enjoyed were not typical for the average young person in Circe, Kansas, where most teenage boys and girls were simply promoted to ‘adult’. In the Midwest, in the near middle of the 20th Century, childhood served as apprenticeship to the (un-official) Guild of Farmers and Laborers. At the age of majority, (and all too often, sooner), young people assumed their place in the community, either staying on the family farm, or finding work on a nearby farm. Even this simple path was becoming increasingly challenging, as the climate and the economy took it’s toll. With nothing to give in exchange for a modest livelihood, other than a strong body and clever, if not limited skills, manual labor was, for the majority of the young coming of age in Circe, their sole stock and trade. Of course, there were those, (young adults), who fared better, by virtue of being born to a family from the mercantile and professional classes. For these pre-adults, their dowry was often exchanged for a place, rather than an occupation, a place far from the limitations of a rural farming community.
Emily and Henry Gale, (Dorothy’s adopted parents), had a successful farm. By local standards, the most reliable measure of the success of a farm in western Kansas, was in the number of farm hands they had in their employ. The Gales had three farm hands, which was three more than the majority of farms that encircled the Town of Circe, Kansas.
Success is usually grounded in hard work, however, if truth be known, having a shrewd mind and slightly predatory business sense was even better. Emily Gale had that shrewd mind. She took the farm, (conferred via an inheritance), and got a husband and made a life for herself. She had a near virulent dream of owning a successful farm and having a large family. She did not succeed at one of her two goals, at least, not directly. Naturally gifted at growing things, the farm did well from the very first day. Plants propagated and livestock co-operated. Unfortunately, Emily Gale was not as fertile as the soil and the one thing she could not convince or extort from or otherwise force Nature to provide, was a child. As with many women of this time and place, she set her hurt disappointment aside, like slip-covered furniture in a living room reserved for Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals, and applied her will to compensating for what was missing in her life. Brooking no opposition, she made the farm efficient to the point beyond which, only expansion could improve upon. And the farm grew more prosperous. In an irony often overlooked, one surplus found in a struggling farm community like Circe Kansas in the 1930s, was also the one commodity necessary for success, semi-skilled labor. Emily Gale recognized this and was shrewd (and predatory) enough to secure the resource of manpower from the failed farms. Emily Gale forced her farm to grow. And it did.
She still could not force her body to grow the one crop that she most desired and so, she identified another unfortunate surplus commodity, children. Emily Gale and her husband Henry, adopted Dorothy and, in the practice of farming and animal husbandry, albeit slightly less traumatic, if not just as permanent, branded the young child as a ‘Gale’.
After the Storm of ’37, resources in the form of failed farms increased and the Gale Farm grew. The death of a distance and wealthy relative from ‘Back East’ added both to the coffers and fueled the ambitions of Emily Gale. This death provided an unexpected opportunity, in the form of renewing family ties, which brought the world beyond Kansas into a prominence greater than any time since Emily Gale stepped off the Train in Kansas City in 1917. The death, funeral and settling of Emily’s Uncle Charles’s estate, necessitated a trip back East. Emily took Dorothy, at the time a freshman in high school, with her. For a young girl from rural western Kansas, the experience was as full of amazing and surprising things as a trip to another world. It opened a door that Dorothy wanted to step through and not look back.
This morning, lying in her single, maiden’s bed, Dorothy Gale waited for the world to solidify around her. Some mornings were more difficult than others, the preceding night’s dreams were usually the deciding factor. This morning, as most mornings, her first task was to un-wrap herself from the sheets and thin wool blanket which held her in place throughout the night, as if to hold her bound to earth, even as her mind flew through exotic dream worlds. The inevitable night sweat was as effective as any resin-soak linen, preserving an Egyptian Pharaoh down through the centuries. Dorothy discovered very quickly, after the dreams started in earnest, that fighting the morning embrace of sheets and blanket did nothing more than give her muscles a workout, which she could always use, but also it would pull her background anxiety to the forefront of her mind, which she could always do without.
Returning from the bathroom, Dorothy felt the night tension linger and realized that her reduced intake levels of caffeine and tobacco, was doing nothing to help her cope with being home. The distance between her life growing up on the farm and her new, very different life as a Freshman at Sarah Lawrence was far greater than she would have imagined. Changes in lifestyles can be subtle and they can be great. For Dorothy Gale, how much she had changed in the last year was very much brought home by her craving a cigarette and a coffee. The bright morning, shining in through the window of her bedroom, was all the temptation she needed and, rummaging through her suitcase (which was still on the chair by the bureau, open as if to say, ‘hey! we can be headed back to civilization as fast as you want’), she found the half-empty pack of Chesterfields and sat on the window sill, breathing in a first of the day lungful of cigarette smoke and the fresh Kansas morning air.
Since returning to Kansas, Dorothy dressed each day with careful deliberation. That women’s fashions and styles were different in New York, is well-understated. As an indication of how mature she was, for being all of 18 years old, Dorothy made the conscious decision to not flaunt the additions she made to her wardrobe, preferring to avoid conflict with her parents, in particular, her Aunt Emily. That she would make this estimation suggests that, despite not being the biological issue of Emily Gale, she shared a capacity, one might even say, talent, for assessing of people and situations. As she told her roommate, at semester’s end, “Being an only child has it’s drawbacks but the advantages, especially when working the parents, more than offset not having brothers and sisters.” Her roommate, Eliza Thornberg, laughed, “And the Trust Fund is so much easier to calculate!” The two girls laughed. Well, one girl laughed, and the other girl tried to join in. Being roommates with the only daughter of a Publishing Magnate was, for Dorothy, the difference between reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and actually living with the gentry class as a distant relative.
Looking through her closet, at the clothes she didn’t pack last September, Dorothy discovered, to her dismay, that finding something to wear that did not shriek, ‘farm girl’, was going to be more difficult than she would ever have thought. Standing in front of the closet, she was surprised, and not a little amused at what surely was a chance arrangement of the clothes hanging on the wooden cross-bar. To the right were the clothes she brought back from College, sweaters on padded hangers, several skirts hanging neatly straight from hangers, (sometimes two hangers if there was a matching blouse), each with a reasonable separation from the adjacent hanger. There were also two dresses that she packed, in the hopes that there’d be a reason that she’d be glad that she packed them. To the left, in the closet, were the clothes she wore before she left for college. At first, she had trouble recognizing individual outfits, as the clothes seemed to be crammed together, some skirts were two-to-a-hanger, sweaters on single, un-padded hangers. Collectively, the clothing seemed to huddle in the corner, the physical divide serving to accent the favored clothes from those she would wear if she had no other choices. Dorothy was about to take out a skirt that she thought would not cause Aunt Em to comment, and a sweater that, very like would, when something rather odd happened. Reaching up for the sweater on the shelf, her elbow jostled the coat hangers of the left-behind clothes and, like a stray wind blowing open an unlatched door, the clothes swayed on the hangers, revealing a blue and white dress. The morning became quiet for Dorothy Gale, the sight of this blue and white check dress (and blue-trimmed white blouse), more than any flying carpet in the Tales of Arabian Nights beckoned her, an un-voiced offer to take her to an exotic and faraway place.
“Dorothy! Dorothy Gale! They may sleep all day back East, but you’re not in New York anymore. Up and out of bed, young lady, the day is already started and you’re falling behind!” the voice of Dorothy’s Aunt Em carried up the stairs and still had enough power to force it’s way into her room. She turned, took down the sweater and pulled out the light green skirt and got dressed.
“Good Morning Uncle Henry! Can I get a ride into town this afternoon?” Dorothy walked through the kitchen, glancing at her Aunt, sitting at the table reading a ledger of some sort, with a half-empty cup of coffee in front of her.
“Well, I’d really like to help you, but two new farm hands are coming over this morning that I need to show around,” taking a smudged and wrinkled paper from his shirt pocket, Henry Gale pushed aside his breakfast plate and smoothed out the paper on the pale blue tablecloth. He took a half length of pencil, (chew marks showed on three quarters of it’s length), and read the list he had carefully printed the evening before, using the pencil to focus his attention. Satisfied that he’d outlined his workday in enough detail to avoid forgetting anything, the prospect of his wife’s criticism sufficient to cause him to triple check his list, he turned to the third person at the breakfast table, a tall, languorous man in his late-twenties, who was staring down at his plate of bacon and eggs,
“Hunk”, Uncle Henry said, “I know you have that section of fence to fix on the Simons property today, don’t reckon that’ll take all the day, do you think you could make some time and take our Dorothy into town?”
Hunk moved his fork and knife from one side of his plate to the other and, using the cloth napkin to wipe his lips, glanced up at Henry on his right and then across the table to where Dorothy was standing by her Uncle’s side, folded his napkin carefully, and said,
“Well, sure. I should be able to. I think I’ll get a lot of the fence mended by then, and, depends on when, of course. When did you want to go? Of course, if you let me know, you know, when you’d like to leave,” He looked, this time almost directly at Dorothy, “Sure, be glad to Dorothy!”
Dorothy, one hand on her uncle’s shoulder, kissed his whisker-rough cheek, enjoying the un-pretentious scent of soap and sweat and pipe tobacco that was as much a part of her image of him, as the blue denim shirt and tool-hung overalls. Dorothy missed this part of her childhood when away at school, where, although one or two professors also smoked pipes, they all seemed to smell of dusty paper, mimeograph ink and stale tea.
“Thats swell, Hunk!” Dorothy smiled and Hunk, again staring at his plate, picking up the already folded cloth napkin, blushed and looked towards the door.
“Well, now, Missy, seeing that you’ve arranged for your taxi, I need you to help me with the laundry this morning,”
Emily Gale looked over the tops of her silver wire-rimmed glasses at Dorothy, until the young girl stared back at her, then and only then she looked around the table at her husband and farm foreman. She smiled to herself at the thought that, although Hunk wasn’t the most focused worker, he had more experience at working the farm than any of the other farm hands she’d since acquired. As part of the first expansion of the Gale Farm, Emily hired Hunk Dietrich, Zeke Montgomery and Hickory Stoddard. They’d been hard workers, each with a strength that seemed to offset the weakness of the other two and contributed immeasurably to the growth of the farm, as she grew it from an original 250 acre spread of wheat and sheep to its current 750 acres.
Zeke died within a month of ‘the Storm of ’37, when the tractor he was operating, in an effort to pull a small house back onto it’s foundation, tipped over and crushed him. Emily witnessed the accident and shouted that he needed to wait for the others to help stabilize the structure. He seemed almost manic in his bravado, insisting that he could do it himself.
After Zeke’s death, Hickory married a Cherokee woman named Wahya, and moved to Arizona.
“What’s so important that you can’t wait until tomorrow? Your father will be going into Town the first thing in the morning.”
Emily Gale would have laughed at the suggestion that she relied almost entirely on her instincts, as she followed the course of her life and goals, “It’s just my willingness to work hard and Faith in the Lord”, was her answer when, in Town for errands or perhaps Church on Sunday, someone she didn’t know very well approached her and complimented the success of the Gale Farm. Anyone who did know her well, would smile and wave, from afar, preferring to keep the interaction at a slight distance.
“Oh, nothing special. I have to visit the library, I have a Summer Reading List you know. And there are some things I want to pick up at the drugstore.” Dorothy was looking directly at her aunt and did not notice the smile pass over Hunk’s face, a cloud-shadow on an otherwise sunny day.
‘Well, Summer is not a time for loafing around and if you hope to go visit your friend in August, you’ll need to pitch in and help with the Farm while you’re here.” Emily Gale affected a stern attitude towards her participation in the work on the farm, despite her acceptance that her adopted daughter’s future was clearly going to unfold somewhere other than in Kansas.
Later, after Hunk had driven off in the grey-and-rust colored farm truck and Auntie Em had gotten the cleaning woman started on the day’s work, (she always went over the list of what she wanted left alone and un-touched, despite the fact that Theodora had been cleaning the house 6 days a week for the past 14 months), Dorothy stood on the back porch, thinking about what books she should take from the library to maintain the fiction that the library was the reason she had to get into Town this very afternoon, when she heard Uncle Henry call to her from the barn,
“Dorothy! Come here, I have a solution to your transportation problems!”
Hearing her husbands voice, Emily Gale stepped out onto the porch and joined her daughter, the two Gale women watched as Henry Gale walked across the dirt yard, wheeling an old and somewhat dented bicycle towards the house. Obviously not ridden recently, the tires seemed to have pressure, none of the spokes were missing, the seat, though worn, seemed serviceable and, there was a small wicker basket mounted over the rear fender, attached to the back of the seat.
Dorothy felt the earth move, ever so slightly, but, as whenever the earth moves for a person, the promise of greater and increasing movement was the source of any growing anxiety. Teetering in the moment, like a novice aerialist on the high wire for their first audition, Dorothy fought for calm, knowing that only by staying in touch with the moment, could she avoid falling into whatever abyss loomed beneath the seemingly solid dirt yard.
“Oh! My Stars and Garters!” the peals of laughter coming from her Aunt exploded across the farmyard and, like the first wave of a tsunami, swept up her husband and lifted her adopted daughter and all three laughed and laughed.
17 miles away, in a dry, clean and soon-to-be-too-warm bed, a woman with a small red ribbon sewed to the collar of her worn-blue hospital gown, moaned a single moan and returned to her quiet sleep.