Owensboro is the safest town in Kansas; we have less than ten crimes per thousand. The State average is forty. Of course, if we had a thousand folks we wouldn’t know where to put them. Our population is 416.
Last year we had a crime spree—two drunks cruising down County Road 256 playing mailbox baseball, one Peeping Tom who was keeping tabs on his ex-wife, and Stan Johnson for public urination, although Stan claims that he couldn’t make it home after drinking and was just pissing out the back of his truck.
No, crime is for the young and ours left Owensboro long ago. What we have are folks too old to work their land and owing too much in taxes sell. Some professor wrote that a town needs about twelve-hundred people in order to be “viable.” If not being viable means having your town fold, he’s right. Ten years ago, the government shut our post office. You don’t know how embarrassing it is to lose your zip code. Then the hardware store closed followed by our food market. The only things left is Don’s Convenience that sells beer, chips and the occasional beef jerky.
We flat-out needed more people. But how to go about getting them? Northwestern Kansas isn’t exactly the center of American repopulation.
That’s when I got the bright idea of us giving away free land to anyone who would move here and build a house on the property. In hindsight, it was probably the dumbest idea I ever came up with, but at the time it sounded pretty good.
“So, how would this work?” Leon Barnett asked at a town council meeting. He’s our mayor. He also runs fixes cars and works the snow plow that’s attached to his pickup truck. “You can’t give away land titles like Monopoly Deeds. Aren’t there legal issues involved?”
I really shouldn’t have become involved. I’m not even on Council, but I like to attend the meetings. They pass for entertainment around here. “I read in the Kansas City newspaper that some towns were trying it,” I said.
“Herb Lyndon broke in. “Wouldn’t it be nice if the town actually owned the land it gives away? All the land around here is in private hands.”
The idea was tabled for lack of support. I thought that would be the end of it but, I was wrong.
The issue came up again at the next meeting. The Mayor said he recognized Hank Stratton to speak which was hilarious since we all knew what Hank looked like. Of course we’ve been using the same joke for years.
“I think I have a plan on how to get more people to move into town. “You remember the homestead acts in the 1800’s? Folks got free land if they agreed to build a house and live there for five years. Most of the towns in Kansas got settled that way.”
“That was a long time ago,” Marv said. “What’s that got to do with the predicament we’re in now?”
“Just this,” Hank said. “With crop prices down, most of us farmers have a lot of our land just sitting fallow. What if each farmer ponied up a little of his land — farms up to one-hundred acres one acre, farms with two-hundred two acres and so on. Then we’d divide the land into small parcels. Newcomers could have the land for free if they agreed to build a permanent house and live in it.”
Leon didn’t seem happy with the idea. “You’re telling me that all of us farmers would donate, as in give away, our land? Why the hell would we do that?”
Hank looked over to me for support.“In order to have a town again,” I said. “We might even get our post office back. What’s better; having all this land and no town or give up one or two acres apiece and have a real place to live?”
“Where would they work?” Herb asked.
“Where folks usually work,” I answered. “They’d open up businesses, teach at the county school, maybe commute.”
Leon raised his hand. “Where would they come from around here?”
They’d be newcomers,” I said, “bottled up on the east coast or in California, living in small homes and paying high taxes. Those are the kind of folks who’d jump at the offer.”
Landis Henry spoke up. “Isn’t there a lot of crime in California?”
“Christ, Landis,” I said. “There’s crime in the big cities. Take a look out the window. Does Owensboro look like a megalopolis?”
“Still, I don’t know,” Marv said. “We haven’t had any outsiders move here in a long time. Would we have any say in who we gave the land to?”
“I’m not a lawyer,” Leon said, “but I’m sure of the answer to that one. You can’t discriminate in housing, and I imagine that also applies to unimproved land.
Anyone who agreed to the terms and signed the papers would be entitled to the free land.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a great idea,” Landis said. “We’d have no idea who was moving in. Maybe they’d be lunatics. Or gangsters. Or lunatic gangsters. This has always been a safe town. All that might change.”
I laughed, even though I didn’t want to alienate Landis’ vote. “Yeah, I can see the headlines in the paper, that is if we had a paper. Crime wave hits Owensboro. Gum wrapper thrown on street.
“Besides,” I continued, “think of how good it would be for business. People take the land, they have to build houses. That means a boon in construction. And those builders would spend money right here in Owensboro. The newcomers would
bank here, buy groceries, pay taxes. It’s a scheme that can’t fail.”
I looked around at the other men seated in the room. “If we have the courage to try something new.”
Jason asked for the floor. “I move that we adopt Steve’s proposal and give our idea to the people here in town for their approval.”
The motion passed unanimously with Leon abstaining. “It still sounds crazy as hell,” he said.
As the weeks passed, we weren’t exactly inundated with applications. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Balanced against one-half of an acre of free land, building a new life in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas probably wasn’t number one on the to-do list of most people. We’d had about fifty people apply. Still that wasn’t a bad beginning.
Contrary to Landis’ fear that we would incur an invasion from California, we got zero applications from that entire State. I attributed this to either that people in California couldn’t find Kansas on a map, or knew that in February when the news agencies reported the temperature as 20 below, it was in Fahrenheit, not Celsius.
We got a lot of applications from North-Central Iowa. This seemed odd. Why would folks one state over be excited about pulling up stakes and moving? But mostly, I was just happy about adding much needed population to our town.
It wasn’t long until things picked up. Three houses began construction and, like I predicted, the construction workers brought money to the local economy. We learned that ten new houses were going to be built, and I figured that we might be pick up fifty people to our small community. Plus, I knew given the number of lots we had given away, other folks would be coming soon. We might hit that “viable” number yet.
I felt good. This was going to be a win-win situation. Newcomers would make a fresh start and the town was getting nice infusion of population. I told myself that Owensboro, for the first time in a long while, was facing a brighter future.
Things imploded about two months later. The first of the new houses were completed and I heard from Luke Benjamin that one of the families was moving in. I thought I’d drive out and show our new pioneers some Midwest hospitality.
As I turned off the County Road onto the gravel lane that led to the new homes, I sensed trouble. Eight trucks were parked on the embankment. I recognized Leon’s Ford and Hank’s Dodge. The rest were unknown to me. This was odd since I knew what kind of vehicle everybody drove. Why would outsiders be concerned with who was moving in?
I pulled in behind the last pickup, got out of my truck and started walking. As I approached the bottom of the drive leading up the new home, I saw a knot of men congregated. Some I recognized, others I didn’t. All of them were animated.
“Hey,” I said to Hank who was lingering at the edge of the crowd, “I heard the first of the families are moving in.” I pointed to the group of men talking among themselves. “What’s with the Welcome Wagon?”
Hank’s face, usually happy and animated was curved with worry. “Trouble,” he said.
“How so?” I raised my chin toward the group of men. “And who are these guys.”
“Well, the guys from town you know,” he said. “The rest are from a couple of townships over.”
Hank lowered his voice. “Steve, the family moving in is Arab.”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly. “How’s that?”
“Arabs,” he repeated. “You know, Iranians, Iraqis. Those types.”
“How do you know?”
Hank kicked the ground with his foot. “The man’s name is Yosef something or other. His last name has something like twenty syllables. The wife is wearing that head thing.”
“More like a scarf. It covers most of her face.”
“Maybe she’s using it to keep the prairie dust out of her mouth,” I joked. “This wind requires getting used to.”
Hank didn’t seem amused. “No, it’s that religious thing they have.”
He leaned in toward me so that only I would be able to hear him. “Steve, what if they’re terrorists?”
I looked at him to see if he was pulling my leg. “You mean the type of terrorists who accept free land and move everything they own out to the wilds of Kansas? The kind that build a house and take a mortgage with the local bank? Those kind of terrorists?”
“Yeah, those.” Obviously my attempt at humor had failed.
“Hank, you’ve been sniffing too much farm fertilizer. Those folks are different to be sure, but they’re probably as much of a threat as you or me. You saw their applications for the free land same as I did. They’re just folks trying to get a fresh start in a new place.”
I hesitated. “A place that they figured was going to be friendly.”
Some of the guys from town walked over. “Steve,” Leon said. “A lot of us don’t care much for what’s going on. And since this free land, buy-a-house deal was your idea, we wonder what you aim to do about it.”
“Do about it?” I said “I wasn’t planning on doing anything about it. They got the
land, they built the house. As far as I can see, they have as much right to live here as any of us.”
Herb stepped to the front of the group. “Yeah, maybe one family. But what if they’re all Arabs? What are we going to do then, build them a mosque?”
I didn’t like the way this conversation was going. “Look, we don’t have any idea what’s going on. It may be just one family. Why are we jumping ahead of ourselves?”
“Well, I think we ought to have an emergency meeting of the town council to see what we’re up against,” Hank said.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll meet tonight at seven. But everybody leave these folks alone.”
I paused. “And tell the guys who don’t live in Owensboro to mind their own business. We can handle our own affairs.”
I walked back to my truck. Tonight wasn’t going to be your usual council meeting.
The meeting began and we quickly saw that we might have a problem. Two-thirds of the approved applicants had a Middle Eastern surname.
“Why didn’t anyone see this before?” Leon said.
“Well, for one thing, the names were taken off the applications,” I said. “Our lawyer told us we had to do it that way in order to avoid any anti-discrimination lawsuits.”
“Whole lot of good that did us,” Marvin said. “We escaped a lawsuit and ended up with little Baghdad.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. “These folks could be from anywhere.
“Besides,” in order to qualify for their building loans, they have to be American citizens. They have as much right to the land as anyone else.”
“Still,” Hank said, “how do you figure so many of them applied from the same part of Iowa? At the least, it may be a cult. At worst, it could be a terrorist cell.”
I studied the faces of the men in the room. These were guys I had known all of my lives, gone to school with, had as teammates in football, attended their weddings. Maybe I didn’t know them as well as I thought.
Before I could say anything else, the door opened, and Les Reinhardt came in. He was out of breath but that didn’t alarm me. After all, Les was forty pounds overweight. Getting into his truck tired him out. Still, he appeared pretty frantic.
“Guys, I’m sorry to break up your meeting, but we got trouble?”
“What kind of trouble?” Hank said.
“Out at the new house. Bunch of guys figuring to take matters into their own hands. I can’t tell you much else but I thought you’d want to know.”
I don’t know why, but it seemed important to me. “Are the men from out of town?”
“Most,” Les said, “but a few of them are from here.”
I fished the truck keys out of a pocket. “This is insane. We need to go break this thing up right now.”
The other men put on their coats. I wondered if they were going out there to be on my side or to join the protesters.
“Do you want me to phone the Sheriff’s station in Springtown?” Leon asked.
I thought for a second. “No, this is a town matter. We take care of our own business.”
Owensboro is not exactly Wichita. By nine p.m. folks have shut off their lights. The roads are saturated in blackness and one can see the constellations in the sky. We don’t have what scientists call light pollution.
So, when I drove up the county road to the new house, I knew there was trouble. A knot of trucks with their brights on were gathered at the bottom of the drive. Men were
outside their cabs bundled against the cold, staring up at the house of our new neighbor.
Then I saw the fire in the front yard. Thank God it wasn’t a cross. I knew how in the 1850’s vigilantes had been strong in Kansas. Pro-slavery and abolitionist gangs had taken turns murdering each other until John Brown had led his bloody raid on Lawrence. That was when the lynchings and beatings had started in earnest.
It wasn’t a cross but it was a clear, ugly message to the newcomers to leave.
I parked on the shoulder, cut the motor and jumped out of my truck. My work shoes crunched on the gravel as I headed up the drive. Someone reached out and grabbed my arm, stopping me in mid-step. It was Don, the guy who ran the convenience store.
“Don’t go, Steve,” he said. “Let the folks up there take care of it themselves. The fire’s not threatening their house. They’ll put it out.”
I spun around and faced the other men. In the glaze of the headlights I saw Leon, Hank, and Marvin. “Who started this,” I said. “Please tell me it was no one from town.”
“Come on, Steve,” Hank said. “You know us better than that. We didn’t start it. We don’t know who did. We just responded to the call same as you.”
“But maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” Leon said. “Face it; all these Arabs moving into the town is not going to work. Better they realize it now before all the rest of them move in.”
“Bullshit,” I spat. “We gave them the land, we invited them to be our neighbors. There are no do-overs. If any of your houses were burning, I’d be the first one to help you. I’m going to help them now.”
“Why do you care so much anyway?” Leon asked. “Why not just let things take care of themselves?”
“My grandfather died in Germany in World War Two,” I said. “
“He died fighting the Germans?”
“For the Germans,” I said. “My father told me when I was a boy. He was ashamed of my grandfather all his life.”
I looked hard into Leon’s eyes. “I promised myself that my children would never be ashamed of me like that.”
I turned my back and rushed up the driveway. A man was trying to fight the fire with a garden house, shooting the stream of water at the top of the flames. He was not being successful.
It’s funny, how things run through your mind, but my first thought was that this guy had to be from the city. Every farmer knew that to put out a brush fire you aimed the water at the base, where the fire was gaining all its energy.
The man was wearing baggy cotton pants that looked more like pajamas than jeans. His tennis shoes were soaked. I thought, he was in more danger of freezing to death than from the fire threatening his house.
Then I saw them; a woman and two small children huddled in the alcove of the front door. They were terrified.
I took the hose from him. He was small, probably no more than five foot five with a black beard speckled with gray that seemed to glow red from his proximity to the fire. His eyes, so black that I couldn’t see the pupils against the night, were large with fear. As I took the hose from him, I could feel his hands trembling.
“Go back to your family,” I said. “I’ll take care of this.”
He stared at me. I didn’t know if he didn’t understand or didn’t trust this stranger who now possessed his only tool for putting out the fire.
“It’s okay,” I said. “No one is going to hurt you.”
He must have understood because he turned and walked over to his family. I could see that his wife was wearing some sort of robe covered by a thick coat. Her head was covered by a kerchief.
I returned to the fire, moving the stream of the hose in a constant circle around its base. It wasn’t much of a threat if you knew how to handle it. Within a minute, it was completely contained.
From behind, I heard multiple footsteps. I turned. Four or five men were walking up the drive toward me. I strained to see if I could identify them but their faces were
hidden in the blackness. I felt like a fool. If they were looking for trouble, all I had for my defense was a garden house spurting a weak stream of water.
It was Leon and Hank and a few guys I didn’t recognize. Without saying a word, they began to kick dirt on the remains of the fire. Hank took the hose from my hand.
“We’ll finish this,” he said. “You go and talk to the owners.”
I wasn’t about to argue. In a small town like this you have to trust folks. Besides, I thought the ground was too wet to start a new fire.
I walked to where the man stood with his wife. She was clutching the children close to her. His hands were clasped behind where I couldn’t see them. What if he was
carrying a gun? I couldn’t blame him if he was. I just hoped he knew that I was unarmed and meant him no harm.
I held out my hand. “I’m Steve.”
He stared at it as if it might have been some secret explosive. Then he
cautiously took it. “Yosef,” he said.
I looked at his two sons. “What are their names?”
“The older one is Ahmad, the younger is Ibrahim. This is my wife, Nadia.”
I went to shake her hand but she didn’t offer hers. Perhaps women in their culture didn’t touch the hands of strange men. I resolved to look up the customs of their culture on the internet.
“I’m sorry about the fire.”
He looked at the men standing around the pile of soaked ashes then back at me. “Who would do something like this?”
“That’s the sixty-four-thousand dollar question,” I said.
He seemed confused. “I don’t understand. Why would one have to pay sixty-four thousand dollars to find out who started the fire?”
I shouldn’t have laughed but I did.
That’s just a figure of speech. It means we don’t know who started the fire. We may never know. But it’s all going to work out. You live in Owensboro now and we’re going to take care of you.”
I’m not sure if he believed me. “This isn’t going to happen again.” I said. I hoped I was going to be able to keep my promise.
Nadia spoke up. “We moved here because we read that your town was safe, because we were told that we could live our lives here in peace.”
“I know,” I said. “It is safe. You’re going to have a good home here. It’s just going to take a while and a little convincing to get everybody on board.”
“We are so tired,” she said. I couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but from her voice I thought that she was crying. “The people did not want us in Iowa. We just wanted to come here and make a new home, a safe home for our children.”
Yosef stared into my eyes. “Maybe we have made a mistake.”
I looked back at him. “You haven’t. And we’re going to start making that home for you tonight. You all go back in your house A few of us are going to spend the night at the bottom of the drive to make sure you don’t get any more visitors. Tomorrow, we’ll start introducing you around town. Once the folks get to know you things will be okay.”
I’m not sure if he believed me. “You would do that for us?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s what people around here do for one another. It’ll make better sense once you get used to the place.”
He gathered up his family to return inside, then turned to me again. “Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”
I usually drink only coffee Thank God this time I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
“I’d be honored,” I said.
As I followed him into his home I thought again about how Owensboro was the safest town in Kansas. Less than ten crimes per thousand. If we played our cards right we might get to a thousand folks yet.”