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And There Was Light

 by Vern Zielke

There was darkness and then there was light. Both were things of great beauty. Looking back to my childhood, it now seems that the greater beauty was the almost total darkness that surrounded us when the last bit of twilight faded from the western sky. On moonless nights when the sky was clear we had a breathtaking, panoramic view of the heavens and often we sat outdoors on warm summer nights and watched the skies. Falling stars solicited from us a quick wish, and there was a time that I truly believed that the penny I found the next day came from some benevolent, celestial granter of wishes.

On cold winter nights we would emerge from the barn after chores were done and gaze at the star studded heavens. The stars glistened and twinkled in majestic splendor far above the snow-covered prairie. It seemed as if we, on our little farm, were the only inhabitants of a dark and awesome world. The windows of the seemingly distant farmhouse projected only a dim light from the one kerosene lamp on the kitchen table. The closest neighbors, whose farm was just across the field to the northwest, seemed even more distant and removed from our world.  We were isolated by the darkness and our larger world would not emerge again until dawn.

Moonlit nights were less mysterious but opened greater vistas for the imagination. It seems that the moon played a more important role in our lives than it does today. We gazed at it with the naked eye and speculated about the "man in the moon" figure, wondering what it might represent. Calendars and almanacs were consulted regarding the position of the moon, and in the spring gardens were planted accordingly. Butchering was thought to be more successful at certain phases of the moon. When the quarter moon was in an upward position, we thought that the possibility of rain was diminished. There is no beauty greater than that of a snow covered prairie bathed in the light of a full moon. Often we would play outdoors in the snow late at night. Sometime we would gather at Lake View and skate on moonlit nights after lighting a huge bonfire on the ice.

Change, inevitable and welcome, came to Meade County after many years of expectant waiting. Rural electrification, which had come to many Kansas communities in the late 30's and throughout the 40's, finally came to bless the farms southeast of Meade. Prior to this, many farmers had installed their own electrical systems. The best and most efficient was the wind charger, which provided enough thirty-two volt electricity to quite adequately power a farm. The generator was mounted on a tall tower and the ever-present Kansas breeze turned the twin blades. Large glass batteries stood in rows on basement tables. These were the forerunners of the modern wind farm machines. Not only did this provide lighting, but it also provided power for electric milking machines and motors to run workshop tools.

We never progressed to the thirty-two volt system on our farm. We did have a small wind charger mounted on the roof of the house, which was capable of keeping a six -volt battery charged, unless we had several successive wind-less days. The six-volt battery gave us a rather dim light in several rooms of the house and powered a radio. The radio was of utmost importance, especially during the war years. Here we could keep up with news of the war, as well as receive the weather forecast, farm markets, and for my mother, the soap operas then prevalent on radio. The short wave band even made it possible for us to hear foreign broadcasts if the conditions were just right. On several occasions we listened to Adolph Hitler as he gave one of his infamous speeches during the war years. 

Radios, as other kinds of appliances, were in short supply during wartime. One summer, during a rather violent afternoon thunderstorm, lighting struck the antenna that was strung above the house. The current traveled in a direct line to the radio itself and it burst into flame. My father ran to the kitchen for a pan of water and quickly extinguished the fire. The damage, however, had been done. The repairman in Meade pronounced it a total loss. Fortunately, he had a used set in the back of his shop, and this little black box served us for the duration.

The six-volt system failed us soon after that, and to keep the radio running we had to take the battery into town to have it charged whenever it ran low. The wind charger on the roof was not replaced, and we reverted back to the use of the kerosene lamps in the house and the kerosene lantern, which provided a very weak light in the barn for nighttime chores.

The war ended in 1945 and it seemed that the R.E.A. (Rural Electric Association) would soon work its magic and bring power to all of our farms. In a flurry of activity, electricians went from farm to farm, installing wiring in homes, garages and barns, preparing them for the immanent arrival of this great wonder. Further evidence of progress was the installation of the tall posts along roadways that would soon hold the wires that would convey the electricity to the farms along the way.

The electricians came to our farm and did the necessary wiring. Outlets were placed in the garage and barn in the event that we would want to use electrically powered tools instead of the hand powered variety.  I was especially anxious to see the day when I would not have to turn the cream separator by hand. The great day finally came. I do not remember the exact date, but it was in 1947. The lines began humming, as I now recall, late in the afternoon, and that evening, after the milking was done, I pushed the plug into the outlet, and the separator performed flawlessly. Instead of the old icebox, we now had a refrigerator, and a new model replaced the old radio.

Two yard lights eradicated the darkness on our farm. One was close to the house and gave light to the back yard and the area around the garage. The other light was in the barnyard, which made the nighttime attention to chores much simpler. Here, just south of the barn, we set up a basketball goal, and here I spent many wonderful evening hours shooting hoops and playing imaginary games. I would stay as long as I could until I would hear a call from the distant farmhouse. Often it would take numerous calls before I reluctantly put the basketball in the separator room and extinguished the light. Then I could attend to my homework by the light of a bright lamp, and on cold nights, put a little warmth in my cold bedroom with an electric heater. 

In 1947, light penetrated the darkness, and our lives were infinitely changed. The beauty of the night sky was somewhat diminished by the brightness of the two yard lights. To see the stars as before we now had to walk away from the lighted yard. The natural beauty, before taken for granted, was now more distant, not easily accessible. A lesser beauty, but significant, was the picturesque view we now had as we looked around us, keeping our gaze at ground level. Every farm for miles around was now visible, the yard lights casting a shining ray of light. We were not, after all, alone. We were one with our neighbors, even under the night sky. Now our gaze was less often upward and more often earthbound. As we had so eagerly anticipated, the darkness had been conquered. But as in all conquests, something of value was lost. 

I recall the first beauty with a sense of wonder whenever I have opportunity to view the night sky unimpeded by manufactured light. It carries me back to the back stoop of the farmhouse where we often sat on summer nights. The vastness of space and the mystery of the heavens gave us a deep and abiding sense of the presence of the Creator. Our neighbors seemed far away and God seemed close.

I recall the second beauty when I have opportunity to visit the Meade community and drive the country roads, recounting the friends and neighbors who inhabited the farmsteads when I was a boy. Many of those lights have now been extinguished but the memories linger on. The lights that brightened our yards proclaimed to all, that even in times of darkness we were present for each other.


(copyright Vern Zielke)

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