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The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go Westby David Haward Bain
The Odyssey Begins
We had been driving north on the old Leavenworth to Fort Laramie military road, now designated Kansas Highway 7/73, concrete and strips of softening tar winding through attractive wooded hills, wild trumpet vines and daylilies sprouting at roadside, willows and poplars alternating with pastures, hayfields, and stands of corn. Hawks rode warm air currents far overhead. Wood thrushes darted in and out of the shade trees. I pulled our car over to the roadside and shut off the engine. It ticked in the early summer breeze. ?This is as good a place as any,? I said to my wife and children. Somewhere on this road between Atchison and Leavenworth in eastern Kansas my grandmother Rose Donahue Haward had been born in a covered wagon in the year 1889.
We were on the first leg of a summer exploring expedition, eight days out from our home in the Champlain Valley in Vermont, following half-forgotten footsteps, barely discernible wheel ruts, and vanished iron rails across the width of our continent for two months. Here, on the Kansas side of the Missouri River, seemed a fitting spiritual start to our odyssey?with my grandmother?s humble beginning in that canvas-covered wagon.
We might have gotten to the Missouri River, to Kansas City, and to Leavenworth by car, but we had really been conveyed by a train called Empire Express, my book about the building of the first Pacific railroad.
On July 4, 1999, I signed my name to the preface of Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad and closed an era in my life that had begun more than fourteen years before. When I started work on the book in the spring of 1985, I was living with my wife in a five-room ground-floor apartment, with a tiny garden, in Brooklyn, New York. Mary and I had been together for five years and our household consisted of us and two cats, Fred and Ginger. By the time the research and writing was done, we had moved twice?first, to Shoreham, Vermont, where we fixed up a dilapidated, 140-year-old farmhouse and tended sheep, and then down Route 22A to Orwell, where we bought an equally old house that had once been the village?s Methodist parsonage, a solid Greek Revival?style house with a lovely wraparound porch with trumpet vines. By then we were raising our two children, Mimi and David.
Despite our bucolic surroundings, I will admit that those intervening years were hard. During that time I went around the country for research, depended on the kindness of many strangers, wore out the interlibrary loan staff at the Middlebury College library, filled up a four-drawer filing cabinet with photocopied handwritten documents and official reports and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase with books, and wrote a 1,100-page manuscript, which translated to 800 book pages. A publisher?s advance in 1985 stretched out pretty thin over thirteen years, on top of which was my wife?s small salary and mine as a part- time writing instructor at Middlebury College. There were no grants, and as part-time faculty I was not eligible for paid leaves. Fortunately we had access to health insurance, for we did have periods of serious illnesses.
What sustained us through most of these hard times was the warm, bright light our children brought into our lives, and also the fact that pursuing such a project as Empire Express was the greatest gift I could be given as a writer and historian. The research covered three decades of tumultuous, absolutely pivotal American history; the greatest single construction project our nation ever faced; and an extraordinary cast of characters. No previous chronicler, in my opinion, had done this historical narrative justice. There were myths to be shattered, new information to be unearthed, new characters to finally be given their due, and? perhaps most important of all?connecting lines to be drawn between the central drama of the railroad and the larger, enveloping national context, between long-accepted isolated events that were actually integrally part of a whole. It may have been a challenge for our family to get to the end of each succeeding month over fourteen years, but I seldom sat down at my desk in the morning without a rising sense of excitement and curiosity about the people and their stories, and how they all fit together, and how the narrative was going to be built.
Back in November 1997, Mary was recovering from her last session of chemotherapy after a mastectomy, and I was at the college on a teaching day. An English Department colleague, Cates Baldridge, came up to me in the faculty lunchroom. ?David,? he told me, ?I?ve got terrible news for you.? Terrible news? I thought bleakly of the past six months. What could be more terrible? He continued: ?I was watching the Charlie Rose show,? he said, ?and Charlie was interviewing Stephen Ambrose, and Charlie asked Stephen what was his next book, and Ambrose said, ?I?m going to do a book on the first transcontinental railroad.??
Well, yes, that was terrible news, but not as bad as a cancer diagnosis. Standing there in the faculty lunchroom, I had the most eerie cinematic moment. My surroundings melted away, and I was out somewhere on the Forty-Mile Desert in Nevada, pumping away on a railroad handcar, sweating like an animal, making slow progress but definitely making progress. Then there was a rumbling vibration I could feel through the pump handle of my handcar, and I looked around to see a great, gleaming, gold-plated leviathan, belching black smoke and white steam, thundering down the tracks and gaining on me every moment?the Ambrose Limited. I could even see his face on the front of the locomotive, like Thomas the Tank Engine only his was emphatically not a warm, happy face: it was cold, expressionless, predatory. The vision faded away and I was back in the lunchroom. I staggered back to my office and made some calls, thinking that thirteen years of work were about to be blown away.
Well, again, our luck held. Three of my most faithful book friends in the world, my agent, editor, and publisher, all of whom I?ve been close to for more than twenty-five years, concocted a formula, to which my college superiors instantly acquiesced. Viking bought me out of my teaching contract for thirteen months, and Middlebury College promised that my untenured job would resume when I finished. All of my book research was already done. More than a decade of following leads like a detective had filled a filing cabinet. Chronologically I was in the spring of 1867?two years to go in the narrative before the Golden Spike, and then the epilogue with all its railroad scandal. All I needed was a year to finish the narrative, a matter of connecting the dots. For the next thirteen months, I wrote seven days a week, all of it in my memory a glorious blur. Usually it?s very enjoyable to live with one foot in the past and one in the present, but for expediency?s sake I just mentally stepped back into the 1860s and stayed there, twenty-four hours a day. I drove the Golden Spike in early December 1998. I finished the epilogue on January 5, 1999, a beautiful, white winter Vermont day. After the long editorial period of winter and spring, I was freed to finish the preface on July 4, with the sound of snare and bass drums booming down on Main Street and the town green.
Empire Express was released with a ten-month lead on its indefatigably popular competitor, and on my own and my publisher?s terms it did extremely well. As to my vision of being out on Nevada?s Forty-Mile Desert, the leviathan may have caught up with me, but he didn?t knock me off the tracks, at least not entirely, and I pumped myself a pretty good distance, or, as railroaders would say, made the grade.
After some of the excitement abated, I began to ask myself, ?How can I repay my spouse for fourteen years of belief and support in this project? How can I reward my good children for not getting complexes because their dad always had a faraway look in his eyes, and was always tired, their entire lives?
I did not take them to Disney World?not yet, at least. My mind and my imagination had been out West, in the 1860s, since before Mimi and David were born. Flying over the prairie, the Plains, the Rockies, the Wasatch, and the Sierra during the book tour, taking all these little puddle-jumper flights from city to city, with the wide-open land always visible below, I was seized with the idea of taking them out West to see the sights I?d seen during research, of showing them places of history. It would take up the whole summer. I began creating an itinerary for two months of cross-country driving, staying for the most part off the interstates and on state, county, or town roads. Or, in many cases, on no roads at all.
My goal was to trace portions of many old emigrant routes between the Missouri River and the Golden Gate?parts of the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Overland trails; the Pony Express; the first transcontinental railroad; and several exploring expeditions, all the way up through our most recent century?s old Lincoln Highway. Most of them were along one extraordinarily resonant and historical corridor. I also wanted to draw an impressionistic narrative line from the Indians, trappers, and traders; the explorers, engineers, and emigrants; to those who actually found what they were looking for and settled into the tiny, isolated pioneer communities that grew up, spread out, and transformed the West, confiscating one kind of life and implanting another. What, after all, had the trails and the train wrought?
A modern-day travel narrative from this would have certain kinds of literary antecedents. I had enjoyed works by William Least Heat-Moon, Colin Thubron, Jonathan Raban, and Bruce Chatwin, to name only a few, and had passionately admired John McPhee?s three-book odyssey across the length of Interstate 80 as a way to illuminate the historical geography of North America. A previous book of mine, Sitting in Darkness, had been a two-level narrative set during the turn-of-the-century Philippine-American War and during colonialism?s logical extension in the Marcos era, these different levels linked by my expedition up the isolated northeast coast of Luzon, following old footsteps and once famous but now obscure doings. But this new work would contain many more historical yarns?I?ve always been convinced that a travel narrative could be supple but strong, that it could indeed support a generous amount of linked historical digressions.
The journey, then, would be many digressions?as I told my children in our driveway as we were pulling out onto our first road, ?This isn?t about the destination, so it?s no use asking, ?Are we there yet?? This is about the journey, about hearing voices and discovering stories. We?ll be there every mile of the trip.?
At the start of this journey in the Vermont village of Orwell, my passengers and I knew that the continent was 3,000 miles wide. As it would turn out, we?d log more than 7,000 miles?one way. I stopped noting the odometer two months after we began, at a truck terminal in the Pacific slope town of Watsonville, California, as I consigned the battered, scratched, and dusty car for flatbed transport home?we had to fly back East in time for my mother?s eightieth birthday party. Back at the spiritual start of the journey in the Missouri Valley, I would tell my mother, I?d paused to stand on the Kansas soil near where her mother, Rose Donahue Haward, had been born in her emigrant parents? covered wagon, in the year 1889.
Her life spoke to me. Rose?s father was named Peter Donahue and he was born in County Galway, Ireland. He had fled to America during the Great Famine; he was eight years old, traveling with his older brother, Thomas, who was fourteen, and his seven-year-old brother, Patrick. They landed at Baltimore. The year was 1856, and we can only guess how those three boys lived, part of the despised Irish hordes who took the bottom-rung jobs when they could rise that far. We know that Peter and Patrick finally joined the U.S. Army in January 1866, nine months after Appomattox. They lied about their ages; Peter was seventeen but said he was twenty-one, and Patrick said he was twenty though he was sixteen. Three square meals a day and clothing provided were quite an enticement. In the year after the war the 5th Cavalry was garrisoned at Washington, D.C., and then was dispatched to the South for Reconstruction duties, probably police and civil rebuilding, around Atlanta.
When my great-grandfather was mustered out in January 1869 in Atlanta, he disappeared into the obscurity of the very poor, who often eluded census takers and weren?t important enough to be found in city directories. He emerged in 1880 in South English, Keokuk County, southeast Iowa, having acquired a wife, Catherine Coughlin, born in Wisconsin Territory (now Minnesota). That year they had a one-year-old daughter and there was a son on the way. Peter Donahue was a railroad laborer with the Chicago & Rock Island. He had grown to his full height, five feet five inches tall, and he had brown hair and brown eyes; his Galway bog accent could not have gone far. According to family lore, the Donahues moved on, taking root in the northeastern part of the state.
The hilly pasture country around Cresco, Iowa, seat of Howard County, was already full of Lutheran German, Norwegian, and Dutch landowners, and as elsewhere there was bad blood between them and Irish Catholics. Moreover, there in the 1880s crop prices were stagnating and population was leveling off. The Donahues had produced five children by then, and were probably tenant farmers?one in every four Iowa farmers was a tenant farmer?since they left no land records behind. Tenant farming was a miserable, hardscrabble life, cursed by circumstance and impermanence. Constantly it was a wandering?always that search for slightly better conditions and the chance to get an inch or two ahead. February was always moving time for tenants so that they could be ready for spring planting in March; in February the rutted, icy roads were always filled with sojourners of this type, a depressing sight for those who had means and sympathy. In late winter 1889 the Donahues hit bottom, so once again, with Catherine in advanced pregnancy with their sixth child, they piled their few possessions into a canvas-topped wagon. They headed west and south across Iowa and Missouri, toward eastern Kansas and Catherine?s brother Jack Coughlin, who had a farm in Shawnee township and who, they hoped, might help them get a new start.
The roads would have taken them down to the redbrick city of St. Joseph, on the Missouri River, and they would have crossed there by ferry or even by toll bridge a little south, opposite Atchison. Perhaps ex- soldier Peter Donahue had an old army buddy stationed at Fort Leavenworth over in Kansas. Perhaps he hoped to work a little for cash at the post. It was getting late for planting in March, but they had their eyes set on Jack Coughlin?s farm, still two or three days distant, when Catherine felt the unmistakable pains and knew it was time. The baby, my grandmother Rose Elizabeth Donahue, was born on the road on March 25, 1889.
Looking at the farms and hills now green in early summer, I thought of what my wife, Mary, had endured in bearing our children, Mimi and David, now eight and eleven and sitting behind us in the truck looking out at the rolling terrain?two difficult, complicated, emergency births that in Catherine Donahue?s time would have left the husband a widower. And Catherine had survived nine childbirths, with one in early spring on the road in the back of a cold, canvas-topped wagon. No wonder that Rose?s patron saint was Saint Christopher, comforter of all travelers. She used to send me and my sister Terry tiny blue and silver Saint Christopher medals taped onto index cards, which my mother, the last Catholic in our family, sometimes permitted us to wear. I remember the baby blue enamel against my chest; I was probably five or six years old and certainly soon lost the medals. With such a heritage it?s no wonder my family has always identified with sojourners, particularly those chasing a dream into the unknown.
Peter and Catherine continued their journey down the road as soon as they could to her brother?s farm in Shawnee, a few miles west of Kansas City. But most of their hopes were unmet. Jack Coughlin had a good- sized spread, some 200 acres, which he had cleared back in 1862. Jack loved his sister but had little use for her husband, and the summer and fall of 1889 were hardly a time for generosity. Peter Donahue took his team of horses and contracted as a road grader in and around Kansas City. He was never a success at it. And the children kept coming. Rose remembered little but privation, and told one story about how excited the family was once when Peter came home on a Saturday night and dragged a 100-pound bag of potatoes in the back door, guaranteeing them weeks of filling meals. Always tired and always distant, he left childrearing entirely in his wife?s care. But once when she was five or six, Rose remembered, her father called her out on the front porch to ask her what time it was. ?I don?t know,? she replied. ?I don?t know how to tell time.? ?You don?t know how to tell time?? he exclaimed as if seeing her for the first time in her life. ?Rose, go get the clock from the mantel and bring it out on the porch.? She did, and then climbed up on his lap and he taught her how to tell time. ?That was one of the few things he ever did for me,? she said much later.
By 1900, living on Hunter Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, all eight children were residing in the house and one more was on the way. The oldest, Mamie, did piecework sewing in a factory; Joseph, the next, was following in his father?s footsteps as a day laborer; Sarah and Maggie were recorded in the census as ?nurse girls,? whether for toddler Martin or out of the house we don?t know. My grandmother and two siblings, John and Tom, were still in school. Peter?s older brother, Thomas, now fifty-six, boarded with the family and worked as a railroad day laborer, but Peter reported that he had been unemployed for six months.
At some point Peter Donahue just decided he?d had enough of teamstering and family life. He was worn out at fifty-six. So one day he announced to his surprised wife and children that he was moving away to the Old Soldier?s Home up in Leavenworth, which is what he did. There had been an old injury to his right side in Washington while in the army, and this disability bought him entrance. It can?t have helped his family, since most of whatever army pension he received was deducted for room and board.
He spent his declining years in the veterans? barracks, looking out from his rocking chair on the second- floor front porch across the slope of the veterans? cemetery toward the brown Missouri. Peter Donahue died on February 1, 1907, of lobar pneumonia, aged fifty-nine. The hospital inventory noted he had $1.95 in cash and $2.80 in effects. He was buried with military efficiency the next day, about 300 yards away from his barracks.
Catherine was left to supervise the brimming household, as indeed she had been doing for some years. Rose, then pushing eighteen and out of school, had long since handed over child care of the youngest siblings to the next sister and was out in the labor force, working at a variety of jobs until she found a place in a printing plant owned by Robert E. Haward on Union Avenue in Kansas City. She was a sheet feeder, inserting paper into the big, loud presses. She was nice-looking and knew it; when Rose was twenty-one or twenty-two and had just had her hair done in an elaborate swept-up bun, she slid into a starched and pleated, high-necked blouse and locket and paid a photographer to capture front, side, and rear views of the hairdo. Sometime after this endearingly prideful act, she attracted the attention of the plant owner?s son, Charles William Haward, also born in 1889. The Hawards, who had emigrated from Suffolk, England, to America after the Civil War, were stalwart Baptists and frowned on their pride and joy?s relationship with an Irish girl, but Charles and Rose were married in May 1914. They had a son, Charles Jr., in 1915 at their house on Troost Avenue in Kansas City, but didn?t stay there long. During the Great War and for a few years more, Charles left the printing business to set up a small chain of stationery and supply stores with his brother John, situating them near army camps in Kansas, Arkansas, and Iowa. While managing a store at Fort Riley, Kansas, Charles and Rose had a daughter, Rosemary, my mother, in August 1920 in nearby Junction City. Around this time the stores stopped turning profits and Charles went back to printing in Kansas City.
My mother recalls her childhood in the 1920s and early 1930s as a long series of rented houses?a pump in the kitchen, chickens out in the yard, and strangers in the neighborhood?with occasional trips out to the permanency of Uncle Jack Coughlin?s farm, where young cousins would play in the big hayloft and ride on workhorses. It was a big, sunlit, rambling house with a front and back staircase. One time she was invited to spend a few days at Christmastime and slept in a feather bed, the acme of luxury to the little girl. There was a notable contrast between the Coughlin homestead, settled and elaborated for sixty years, and all the temporary quarters of Charles and Rose Haward. Then things changed. On her own, not telling her husband, Rose marched out one day and with minuscule savings made a down payment on a modest stucco house southeast of downtown Kansas City on 92nd Street. This was at the height of the Depression, when many were walking away from their homes, but now, Rose declared, they could begin to put down roots. The house sat back from the road on four acres with views eastward over wooded bottomland. Rose lovingly enlarged the house, beautified the property, and commissioned a little sign to swing from a post at the head of the driveway: ?Circle H Ranch.? She ordered ink pads and rubber stamps from the stationery store with that name, branding iron figure and all, and the address, ?92nd and Harrison.? I have one still, as well as lush memories of summers there.
After college and the war my mother had gotten a job with a Kansas City radio station, and there, at a company picnic, she met David Bain, then a rep from the RCA broadcast equipment division out of Chicago. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Fred Astaire and, working in radio stations all over the South in the 1930s, he had assiduously erased all traces of a drawl from boyhood homes in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida. During the war he had worked on a top secret radar project for the navy, being recruited after peace with many fellow engineers into the RCA family. ?Remember me?? he wrote Rosemary on a postcard from Chicago?s Hotel Eastgate, where he lived. ?Please do, ?cause I?ll be calling you one of these days.? He did, and in Kansas City they married in 1948, the year before I was born out East in the RCA world headquarters city of Camden, New Jersey, to which my father had been transferred.
I think we spent part of nearly every summer at the Hawards? ?ranch? in Kansas City during the 1950s. I know that we lived in at least three apartments and five houses, virtually all of them in different towns, before I was twelve as my father was frequently transferred between RCA?s South Jersey and Washington, D.C., offices. Much later, in college, I met army brats and we understood each other with our constantly uprooted childhoods. It seems as if the Kansas City ?ranch? was as comparatively solid to me as it had been to my mother and grandparents, much as the Shawnee farm of Uncle Jack Coughlin had been to Rosemary and Rose. As a boy I remember trudging up the 200-foot driveway bordered with petunias to get my grandfather?s mail, turning around at the Circle H Ranch sign to go back toward the neat stucco house with its screened-in side porch. Inside it seemed dim and of another century. The living room had an oriental carpet and heavy overstuffed old furniture, with a print of Gainsborough?s Blue Boy framed above. But other places fired my imagination and memory: there was a bunk bed nook upstairs off the master bedroom in which my grandfather read to me and my sister Terry, and a little silver-floored balcony outside we could visit, and there were 7-Up bottles kept cool down in wooden cases in the stone cellar, and back outside there was a little bunkhouse that always smelled of mown grass and charcoal from an ancient fire. Beyond the back door and a grape trellis (in which was wired a little plastic bird), my grandmother had fashioned and landscaped a grotto out of a half-tumbled building foundation, where there stood her statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and beyond this and a garage was a lower yard with a dank cyclone cellar and a tenant house that was usually empty, where we played.
I know there were summer gatherings of the Haward family there at 92nd and Harrison, but the ones I really remember are of the Donahues?two or three picnic tables set out in the cicada-serenaded yard near a hammock, attended by card tables with great plattered piles of barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, pickles, and potato salad?with cousins and their parents, some of Rose?s many siblings, Aunts Agnes, Sarah, and Elizabeth, and Uncles John and Tom, the latter of whom was most distinguishable because of his old- fashioned metal spectacles, suspenders, and missing right leg, which he had lost as a boy when swinging onto a slow-moving freight train to hitch a ride into the city as all the kids did, but then falling under the boxcar wheel. Another family connection with trains, I was told, came through my grandfather, who when a boy had been minding his little brother Oliver Haward out on the sidewalk and the boy ran out in front of a streetcar and was killed. And there were other tragedies, some of which we young ones didn?t learn about until much later, like the fact that Charles and Rose?s only son, Charles, had shot himself in 1940 in the American embassy in Peking, where he worked, a victim of the clinical depression passed down through his mother and grandfather. My mother had been summoned home from college in St. Louis only to read of the suicide in the paper on the way to Kansas City. But tragedies went unaddressed at my grandparents? in the 1950s.
Terry and I were Charles and Rose?s only grandchildren and the focus of great attention?Rose encouraged me through my mother into piano lessons, and Charles saw my interest in the Civil War and the Old West and sent me a subscription to a new magazine called American Heritage. Then two more siblings arrived, Christopher in 1955 and Lisa in 1957, but for them there are no memories of the Circle H Ranch. On November 6, 1958, Rose woke sometime before dawn and moved to sit in a bedroom rocking chair, where, quietly, her heart stopped. Charles stayed on in Kansas City for a few years but as his health declined he closed up the house and moved in with us in the New York suburbs. He followed Rose in August 1968. Someone bought their old place.
Two days before we stopped on the Leavenworth?Atchison road to approximate the place of my grandmother?s birth, I led my family southeast of downtown Kansas City to 92nd Street. I had heard from my mother in New York that the house was no longer there, but I wanted to walk on the open land, even if it meant hopping fences and ignoring NO TRESPASSING signs. Just off Holmes, on the eastward way to Troost, 92nd was a forgotten waste, weeds growing in pavement cracks, the street lined with exhausted or abandoned bungalows and cottages. From the 1920s through the 1950s this had been a modest, genteel outskirts-of-the-city kind of road with summertime radio broadcasts of the Kansas City A?s, the Athletics, pouring from every house, laundry on lines strung at the back screen door, pitchers of iced tea on the counters, and friendly waves from side porches when one walked or drove by. Now it was difficult to tell whether anyone still lived on the street, although a few houses still struggled to look current. At the end of the street stood two metal barriers, then 100 feet more of cracked pavement, then a final dead-end barrier and a sumac thicket. Despite the decay, in my mind?s eye a driveway stretched down alongside flower beds and honeysuckle to the graceful stucco house, and I smelled grass clippings from my grandfather?s electric mower, and there was the carbonated tang of a swallow of 7-Up in my mouth, but what I really took in, where ranch and house once were, was a great gray steel prefab warehouse, that took up virtually all the square acreage of the homestead. Even the topsoil had been bulldozed down to the underlying shale and carted away. There were no markings on the building. We walked down along the back of the warehouse until thickets blocked the way at roughly the place where I used to catapult out the side porch screen door into the yard. I could see old neighbors? forgotten sheds and Forties-era car hulks off in the trees. Behind us the houses across the street were also razed, overtaken by weeds and saplings, but we found a neglected little family cemetery with a dozen or so stones visible in the poison ivy?Douglases, who worked the land there in the nineteenth century and broke the farm up into building lots in the 1920s so that people like my grandparents could own a little place. Bluejays and cardinals flew through the grove. Memories I have still not completely catalogued overwhelmed me. All that was there was gone, except what was in the heads of a middle-aged brother and sister and their eighty-year-old mother.
A few miles away at the high-walled Mount St. Mary?s Cemetery, 23rd and Cleveland, with its large, well- kept lots, with gardeners out pulling away felled limbs from the previous night?s seventy-mile-per-hour winds, we found the Donahue family plot?great-aunts, great-uncles; my sad Uncle Charles, who when he shot his own heart broke my grandmother?s; and finally Rose Elizabeth Donahue Haward herself.
Two days later we were in Leavenworth, Kansas, at the Old Soldier?s Home and the veterans? burial ground, now called the Dwight David Eisenhower Veterans? Administration Medical Center and the National Cemetery. Standing beneath a spreading maple tree near the bottom of a hill was Peter Donahue?s gravestone, his name elaborated only by his military unit, Company C, 5th U.S. Cavalry. Uphill was the Old Soldier?s Home barracks, now empty?the large modern facility that had replaced it was away on the other side of a placid reflecting pool decorated by ducks. The two old buildings, one brick, one clapboard, had massive columns reaching up past second-story screened-in porches toward austere eaves and silver tin hip roofs. Here taciturn Peter, having dumped his family, waited for an end to a lifetime of wandering, bit- ter prejudice, and hard labor, thinking occasionally, I suppose, about the green of County Galway, an Atlantic voyage, the hard regularity of army life, the procession westward with wife and children. I tried to shrug him off. I could hear songbirds, and even more comforting, from out of the northeast, a train whistle.
Frequently during the writing of Empire Express, my mother and I had talked about how Peter Donahue had drifted west like unchronicled thousands in the nineteenth century, particularly after the Civil War. This was the same time when the Union Pacific Railroad had papered the Eastern and Midwestern cities and towns with handbills hoping to recruit thousands of laborers, many happening to be Irish, to the great work west of the Missouri. Now we know that as a seventeen-year-old Irish orphan, my great-grandfather had not answered that locomotive?s whistle but had lied about his age and gotten the only steady job of his life, a three-year hitch in the army, being discharged in Georgia just four months before the driving of the Golden Spike in Utah in May 1869. And then he had drifted westward and disappeared for a time. Meanwhile thousands of his countrymen had labored out on that historic trackside. Where had he gone when he vanished? What might he have done if, instead of enlisting in the army, he had found a Union Pacific handbill and followed the call out past the Missouri? Maybe on some level this journey was to see what might have happened out there, for him, through my eyes.
And so, on the old Leavenworth to Fort Laramie military road, now designated Kansas Highway 7/73, we paused on a gravel shoulder to watch an imperturbable red-tailed hawk get bullied away from raiding a pasture oak nest by two tiny, swooping, protective parent birds, who gave him the bum?s rush off across stretching acres of cornstalks toward northeastern hills, with the Missouri River beyond. I thought about the infant Rose seeing her first light of day filtered through white canvas?and also about all those who hadn?t stopped westering here but kept on going until they dropped or found shreds of what they were seeking. I pulled us back onto the concrete and we headed north toward the river, which bent to meet us.
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