I like to be cool. That’s normal, right? No one likes to be on the outside of normal looking in unless you can make the outside look really cool to everyone else like The Fonze or vampires. Being a stay at home father isn’t the strange and uncommon thing it used to be. Most people have heard of men that are the primary care givers to their children and a few socially progressive people may even boast to be best friends with a man who has chosen to do such a thing. In cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco it may even be cool to be a stay at home father because in the major cultural centers of our country it is cool to be uncool. But in Kansas, small town Kansas, it’s not so cool. Ya, I’m not that cool here.
We live in the largest mining town in southeast Kansas. Driving in from the West the first thing you will notice is the sign on the side of the highway proclaiming this proud distinction. The sign on the East side of town is mysteriously absent but since there are only two mining towns in southeast Kansas maybe we blushed at over emphasizing our uniqueness. No sign in either town will tell you that the mines have been closed for decades. This, I suppose, is an attempt to hold on to the title of “mining” town because if we gave up that title then all we would have is town and that’s not very exciting. If the main street slowly sinks into the abandoned mines like some say it is then we may have to lose the title of town and simply leave “mining” on the sign. That would be awkward.
The town takes its name, Galena, from the mineral that was once blown out of the ground by men who in the old photos look like they are happy, although everything you know about their lives tells you they shouldn’t be. They are young and old, smiling, and covered with what we now know to be the carcinogenic dust of lead and zinc, also products to come out of the local mines. The miner’s caps on their heads are lit by a small oil lamp hanging out if front of their face like the light of an angler fish. All of these men are long gone and the town is a testament to their absence. Driving through town, the gravestones in the cemeteries are all that is left of the heart and soul of this place. As if pitched around by waves in slow motion, the headstones lean every which way slowly sinking into the graves that they mark. Galena itself is a gravestone. It marks the heyday of the Old West when our town had a five star hotel, an opera house, and brothels. Jesse James robbed a bank nearby and is reputed to have hid out in the hills surrounding Galena. Now, the town is slowly sinking into the ground that created it and is a symbol of the Midwest as it was a hundred or more years ago.
Today our claim to fame is that the writer of the movie “Cars” is reputed to have traveled route 66 and found his inspiration for the movie from our local area. The character of “Mater”, the old tow truck that befriends the lead character in the movie, was discovered in Galena. The old truck has since been seen for the marketing opportunity that he was at the time the movie was popular. Unfortunately, the owner of “Mater” discovered that fact about ten years too late. He now has eyes and a mouth painted on him but he remains stuck on an abandoned section of route 66. Apparently the movie did nothing to highlight his plight.
Galena is filled with the typical run down and empty store fronts of towns whose glory day was four generations ago. Within the towns are old houses, mansions in their day, that still reveal the wealth that was created by the mines. Huge wrap around porches with sun rooms decorated with ornate wood work adorn these deteriorating houses. Around them are the miners cottages that now house some of the poorest people in America. A friend of mine who delivers mail in the area says that many of the homes do not have water or electricity for part of the year. It can be a dire place, but hey, “Mater” lives here, so not all is lost.
When my wife and I decided to move here over ten years ago we were struck by the sadness of the place as much as we were by the beauty. Galena is on the westernmost tip of the Ozark mountains. Oak and dogwood trees, deer and turkey, and rivers and lakes fill the landscape. The air is crisp and clean in the spring time with beautiful blue sky and amazing sunsets. Out here you can be alone if you want to be surrounded by the land that you own or you can live in town and enjoy the company of friendly neighbors. Soon after we moved here in 2002 we attended our church Spring Festival to find a potluck spread of homemade food like we had never seen before: fresh pies, steaming casseroles, deer and turkey freshly killed and turned into jerky, fish out of the local rivers breaded and deep fried. The older folks in the group were sitting in the shade slowly turning the handle on the homemade ice cream makers. A 1920’2 era tractor entertained children and adults alike with a hay ride. A horse shoe tournament was the main sporting event of the day. We felt like we had stumbled onto a movie set.
For all of the Midwest’s sadness and beauty, this is where we have chosen to raise our children and make a home. This is where we have made friends, built our home, and invested our lives in the people around us. And it is this context that I have chosen, as a man in the prime of my life, to stay home, become uncool, and raise my young children.