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Personal History in Kansas

No one spoke of my grandfather Kreamer, not ever. Even his given name was a mystery. All anyone seemed to know was that he had disappeared before my father's fourth birthday. And when my father died a few years ago, I assumed that any hope of knowing anything more about my grandfather—his father—had evaporated.

So last year, as I intermittently corresponded with a distant relative I'd met through an on-line genealogy site, I was stunned by the following e-mail from her: "My cousin just wrote me and sent the following text from an article she found this afternoon. Hope this isn't a shock to you." The newspaper story, from the February 16, 1927, edition of the Glen Elder Sentinel, was headlined "J. H. Kraemer Still Missing." (The routine misspelling of our name is obviously a longstanding phenomenon.) The paper went on to report that "J. H. Kraemer, missing cashier" from the local bank, "has never yet returned and no news has been obtained of his whereabouts. A good many people over the county still think that he will come back and assist in straightening out the affairs of the bank."

"Straightening out the affairs of the bank"—could a phrase be more suggestively, intriguingly vague and expansive?

The Glen Elder bank was affiliated with the State Bank of Downs, Kansas. Dan Harrison, from a prominent family in the area, had cofounded the Downs bank and served several terms as mayor, and several as a state senator. My grandmother, Catherine "Toots" Harrison Kreamer, was his daughter. It made sense that my grandfather Kreamer worked in his father-in-law's business.

But no wonder no one spoke of him. He wasn't just any criminal—he'd stolen from his in-laws!

This isotope of information meant just one thing: I needed to go to Downs, a farming community of 1,100 in north-central Kansas that I had last visited, from my hometown of Kansas City, when I was nine—39 years before.

I persuaded my 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, to accompany me on this Nancy Drew-ish adventure. There are no scheduled planes, passenger trains, or even buses that stop near Downs. We flew from New York to Omaha (where my mother-in-law lived) and rented a car for the six-hour trip west into the middle of the middle of America. The route we mapped to Downs, which is 20 miles south of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states, was along Route 77, the Homestead Expressway, into Kansas and "Pony Express country" as a posted road sign announced. Our family is always inclined to drive the back roads, and in Kansas, where the speed limit on two-lane highways is 65 and all roads run clean and straight, those byways are efficient—and their vistas are sublime. I had mouthwateringly imagined stopping for dinner at some great little mom-and-pop restaurant for the chicken-fried steak with cream (not brown) gravy that I remembered from childhood. But over hundreds of Blue Highway miles there was no such place to be found. On the other hand, there were virtually no fast-food restaurants—the thin and declining Great Plains population density cannot support the national chains.

After a pizza dinner, we drove due west on Route 24, through the Flint Hills, the little-known, classic-western-movie scenery of north-central Kansas, into the twilight. As a kid, I'd endured the drive to my grandmother's house: flat tedious mile followed flat tedious mile. So I was surprised to find how much the landscape itself—the dramatic simplicity of infinite cornfields against the distant horizon—moved me. On no conscious level had I been aware, during these last 30 years on the East Coast, that this vast emptiness was inextricably linked to my notion of myself. I hadn't imagined how beautiful it would seem to me—or to Lucy, who was seeing it for the first time. We were giddy with space, and stopped repeatedly to take pictures of isolated clapboard churches; miles of glowing sunflower fields; white gravel roads serpentining through endless green corn; hulking, centipede-like irrigation systems hurling water into the dry soil; and abandoned farmhouses surrounded by cottonwood windbreaks whose canopies were punctuated by ramshackle mills. Dust devils bobbed and danced in distant fields. And the streaming plumes of dust roiled up by farmers out tilling their land billowed on the horizon. The bulbous water tower of each (barely) inhabited place seemed to cry, "Look, here, we exist!" long before any other human presence was visible.

We passed exactly two cars, both of them going east, during the final 45-minute stretch of our all-day trip. As we drove through Cawker City (population 585), I was disappointed by the "largest ball of twine in the world." In my memory it was a grand, wonderfully absurd, amber-colored sphere as big as a house, on display beneath a strikingly modernistic circa-1960 geodesic dome. But today it seemed more like a minivan-sized pile of dirty rags under a carport.

Glen Elder (population 448) looked as if a neutron bomb had been dropped on it. No one was out sitting or walking or puttering. Bikes had been left splayed on their sides in yards. Apparently empty buildings stood silent. These stretches of the plains are lands that time forgot—but for my time-traveling purposes that was a good thing. When we finally arrived in Downs, around nine at night, the town looked hardly different from the sepia-toned, panoramic 1901 photograph of Downs that hangs on my living room wall in New York. Driving along the main street, I remembered exactly my grandmother's old address, 509 Division Street, and was able to find it—as my father always said to congratulate himself and my mother on successful navigations—"like a homing pigeon."

Lucy and I made our base camp at the Howell House, an impeccably restored Victorian bed-and-breakfast. Our first stop the next morning was my grandmother's place, just a few minutes' walk away. My strongest memory of it had been the wraparound sleeping porch where we'd escaped the stifling summer heat and watched fireflies glimmer in Mason jars with lids punched by a rusty ice pick—our only source of light. The porch was gone, and the house "modernized" in ways I disliked, but the bones of the place were still there and anchored me in my grandmother's presence.

I was able to track down her nephews, Bill Harrison, a 79-year-old retired gallery owner living in Taos, New Mexico, and Bogue Harrison, 74, and living in Panama City, Florida. I'd talked with Bill maybe once in my life, when I was about six years old, but he reacted to my call without missing a beat. "Well," he said, "now that you bring it up, when I was little, Jack Kreamer simply wasn't mentioned." My grandfather's name was Jack! Bill had worked at the family bank in Downs during college summer breaks in the 1940's, and remembered one incident very specifically: his father saying, "I want to show you something," taking him into the big bank vault, and digging out a three-inch-thick bundle of 20-year-old checks, wrapped with adding machine tape, that totaled over $45,000.

"These are the checks that Jack Kreamer bounced trying to cover his gambling debts," Bill's father told him, "and your grandfather covered them with his own cash." The tone of disgust used by Bill's dad left his son in no doubt about the in-laws' regard for Jack—$45,000 in 1927 was the equivalent of half a million dollars today.

The picture in my mind of my grandfather became both cloudier and more exciting. Was he an embezzler or just an extravagant bettor?Or both?Where in the middle of nowhere, in the pious, Protestant plains of Prohibition, could Jack have gambled on that scale?How far would he have had to go—Kansas City is 200 miles east and Denver 400 miles west—to lose such a sum?Was it possible that my grandfather was still alive somewhere, a very old man living high off his bank spoils?Had he started a new family?I was imagining Newman and Redford in The Sting. And I knew that my father, who had loved mystery novels, would have delighted in my speculations.

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