I read an article recently written by a woman who has decided to study the biographies of bad presidents to remind herself, not that the current situation is not terrible but that situations have been terrible before.
This story is not about that. But in a similar sense it is about our condition in general not being as startlingly unique as we imagine. At numerous junctures in our history, the past was resonantly similar to the present, minus inferior dental care and no concern about gluten.
Plus, I thought it would be fun to write about.
And hopefully read about as well. So here goes.
He wanted to ride for the Pony Express. But his time was rapidly running out.
He had memorized the ad. (The one Wikipedia labels “the alleged ad”, although I am presenting it like it’s correct.)
“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
He wasn’t an orphan, but that was okay; the ad did not say, “Dead parents required.” But he was quickly approaching nineteen, and that was over the “cutoff.” A year before, his brother Cal had run off to join the Pony Express, and the youngster wanted dearly to follow in his hoofsteps.
His was a single-minded obsession: To join up and ride for the Pony Express.
His Pa, he well knew, was against it. The man had lost one son to the Pony Express; he’d be dad-blamed if he’d surrender another. He often caught his son day-dreaming out in the fields, imagining himself riding like the wind, his hat blowing back but not off because it was fastened with a string – can’t waste precious time, the mail unnecessarily delayed because his hat blew off and he had to go back and retrieve it. He knew people out West were depending on him for the latest news from “Back East.” How else would they know that Lincoln had been elected president a couple of months earlier? They might have thought they were still stuck with Buchanan.
But that was none of his Pa’s never mind. Subsistence farming had but one rule: If you don’t farm, you don’t subsist.
With that dire and dreadful understanding, the boy’s Pa was a punishing taskmaster. He’d catch his child imagining high adventure on the open plains and call out,
PA: “Till that soil, boy! Till it!”
BOY: “I am tillin’, Pa.”
“No, you ain’t!”
“I tell ya, I’m tillin’. I’m a-tillin’ for all I’m worth!”
“Think fast. Are you a-reapin’ or are you a-sowin’?”
“I mean, I’m a-sowin’!”
“I’m sorry, I misspoke.”
“This is serious business, boy. Your mind’s gotta to be whole-heartedly on your farmin’.”
“I know, Pa. But I cain’t help it if it wanders sometimes.”
“My mind don’t wander. I’m a-thinkin’ about puttin’ food on the table. And how if we don’t make it, we die.”
“I'm a-thinkin’ the same thing, Pa. Honest I am.”
“How many ‘way stations’ the Pony Express have?”
“A hundred and eighty-four.”
“How far are them ‘way stations’ apart?”
“Five to twenty-five miles, depending on the terrain.”
“What are we a-growin'' in this field?”
“There! You see?
“Well all these seeds look the same.”
“They do not!”
(Writers Note: I do know what I’m talking about. It is very possible they do.)
“You better get yer head out of the clouds, boy. Or this family’s a goner.”
“Pa, do you know that the Pony Express pays its riders a hundred dollars a month? I don’t make nothin’ here, a-sowin’.”
“A-reapin’! Goldarn ya. Yer plantin’ seeds in the wrong season!”
“I can’t help thinkin’ about the Pony Express. My brother Cal’s out there, seein’ the world, a-whoopin’ and a hollerin’. With what he makes, he could provide for the whole family!
“But he don’t! He throws it all away, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’!”
“Well, I wouldn’t, Pa. You know me. I’m scrupulously diligent.”
“Don’t throw them ‘two-dollar’ words at me, boy. Book learnin’ don’t get in the wheat.”
“You mean ‘oats.’”
“It don’t get in nothin’! Remind me to whup ya when we get home for sassin’ me. I would do it right here but it would frighten the horses.”
They work on in silence. When darkness arrives, they head back to the house for supper, the boy, followin’ his whuppin’, fidgetting distractedly at the dinner table.
MA: “Eat yer food, boy.”
“I am eatin’, Ma.”
“No, you ain’t. Yer jest movin’ it around on yer plate.”
“I tell ya, I’m a-eatin’!’
“What are ya a-eatin’?”
“It's pork bellies!”
“It tastes like chicken. And mighty flavorful chicken at that.”
“It is the same thing out in the field. He ain’t a-tillin’…"
“… and he ain’t a-eatin’.”
“Well why would I? My whole life, I’ve dreamed of ridin’ for the Pony Express. I turn nineteen, and that lifelong dream is impossible. Land o’ Goshen! My nineteenth birthday’s a-comin’ up fast and I’m stuck here a-tendin’… wheat?...”
“… out in the fields! I know how y’all feel about it, but just gotta accomplish my dream. I just gotta!”
The door flies open and in, covered in trail dust, steps the boy’s Pony Express-riding older brother, Cal.
“Cal! It’s a miracle! (HE GETS UP) I’m ready to go, Cal. Join you ridin’ for the Pony Express.”
CAL TAKES A SEAT AT THE TABLE, HUNGRILY COMMANDEERING SOME VITTLES.
CAL: “Got one word for ya, boy. ‘Telegraph’.”
“What does that mean?”
"Don't you know nuthin'? They string up these wires all over the place and..."
“I know how it works, Cal. But why are ya sayin’ ‘Telegraph’ out of context like that?”
CAL LOOKS AT HIS FATHER.
“You have no idea what I have to put up with.”
“The telegraph, Mr. Nose-In-A-Book is the wave of the future. The Pony Express is over!”
“What are ya talkin’ about?”
"Our time’s come and gone. The Pony Express is done for.”
“That ain’t true!”
“Are you sayin’ I’m a-lyin’? Remind me ta whup ya after I’m done dinner.”
“But why do you keep sayin’ it’s over?
CAL HEAVES AN EXASPERATED SIGH. THEN AS IF EXPLAINING TO A PRE-SCHOOLER, HE SAYS,
"It’s safer and cheaper sendin’ messages by telegraph. Faster too – no horse ever faster than a telegraph message. Plus no chuckholes to fall into where your horse breaks his leg and you have to shoot ‘im in the head. No Indians, neither. I don’t know what it is, but them Indians kept a-chasin’ me for the mail. I ask ya. What good is someone else’s mail to an Indian? It’s not like anyone’s writin’ to them.”
“I can’t believe it. The Pony Express is kaput and I missed the whole thing.”
“Nineteen months – our entire history. And I thought it would last forever.”
“‘Rapid change.’ I hate it!”
“Amen, brother. (RAISING A GLASS OF WHATEVER THEY DRINK) Here’s to the finish of ‘Rapid change.’”
“May it never plague this great country again.”
THE FAMILY CLINKS AND DRINKS, HOPING THAT THE ARRIVAL OF THE TELEGRAPH WILL BE THE END OF THE “RAPID CHANGE PROBLEM” FOREVER.
Some point to ‘Rapid change’ to explain the discombobulating anxiety of huge swaths of the American electorate. But that’s what we do here and we always have. Its rate of speed may be faster than previously, but the plan for surviving it remains inexorably the same:
Hold tight and keep a-ridin’.
(Author’s Note: Another lesson is “Grab onto your dream before it’s extinct” but I elected to chronicle this concern instead, as few jobs vanish as quickly as the Pony Express. Except, perhaps, for Betamax repair specialists.)