Saturday, July 26, 2014

Elmer Kelton Wrote About People, Not Heroes

08/31/2009

Elmer Kelton The San Angelo Standard-Times San Angelo Standard-Times Elmer Kelton worked four decades covering ranching and livestock in West Texas. Here he is (left) in 1959 with Al Sledge, executive editor of the Standard-Times.

Living in the East in no way prepared people to live in the West. Walter Prescott Webb, the historian, described “what happened in American civilization when in its westward progress it emerged from the woods and essayed life on the Plains....” The vegetation, the wildlife, the topography, the weather — everything changed. The difference threw the settlers’ “whole way of life out of gear.”

“The salient truth, the essential truth is that the West cannot be understood as a mere extension of things Eastern,” Webb wrote in The Great Plains.

Nobody understood this difference, and it effect on the people of the Western Plains, like the novelist Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, Texas.

Elmer Kelton died last week. He was 83 years old, and in his time he wrote the best books about the treeless land and the work that men and women faced when they moved beyond the 98th meridian. 

Elmer Kelton was born at Horse Camp in Andrews County, Texas, to Mr. and Mrs. R. W. “Buck” Kelton. He grew up on the McElroy Ranch in Upton and Crane counties where he learned to do ranch work. Early on, Kelton realized he lacked cowboying talent. "I was the oldest of four boys and by far the worst cowboy," Kelton said. "I rode a horse like all the rest, just not as well, so I took a lot of refuge in reading. Westerns were my heritage. . . . By eight or nine, I decided if I couldn't be a cowboy, I would at least write about it."  West of the 98th meridian, rainfal drops and the East becomes the West.

His mother, a former school teacher, encouraged his literary bent. When young Kelton talked about his aspiration to become a writer, his father “gave me a look that would kill Johnson grass,” claiming his son, like other members of his generation, “want to make a living without having to work for it.” Elmer joined the Army, married an Austrian woman, graduated from the University of Texas and then moved back to West Texas to write.

Kelton worked most of his life covering the agriculture industry, first at the San Angelo Standard-Times and later as editor of the Sheep & Goat Raiser magazine and Livestock Weekly. He spent the day with West Texas ranchers and cowboys, then he’d go home to a windowless study in his San Angelo home and write his stories.

(For exceptional coverage of Elmer Kelton’s life and his funeral, go the website of the San Angelo Standard-Times.) 

The novels came from a writer who had spent his life listening to stock raisers and cowboys. “His characters breathe,” wrote Ross McSwain in Ranch Magazine.  “Like many West Texas ranch folks that the author has befriended over decades of covering agricultural news, his heroes are complex, flawed and, in some cases, unlikable.”

Texan Joe Holley, writing in the Washington Post, says that Kelton “avoided the lure of sagebrush nostalgia and the easy indulgence of Old West cliche. Nobody gets shot in a Kelton novel -- which are often set in the modern West -- and his cowboys and ranchers are not mythic heroes on horseback. ‘I can't write about heroes 7 feet tall and invincible,’ Mr. Kelton liked to say. ‘I write about people 5-foot-8 and nervous.’" Elmer Kelton The San Angelo Standard-Times San Angelo Standard-Times Elmer Kelton in his San Angelo home.

There were characters like rancher Charlie Flagg in The Time It Never Rained, a “broad-shouldered man who still toted his own feed sacks, dug his own postholes, flanked his own calves. The scorch of summer sun and wind had burned him deep. His face was so brown he might have passed for a Mexican shearer, had his eyes not been the deep blue of a troubled sky.”

 Self-sufficiency was the recurring political theme in Kelton’s stories. Charlie Flagg warned about taking anything from government. Wes Hendrix, in The Man Who Rode Midnight, stood in the way of a lake planned by the town of Big River. The town saw a future in ski boats and vacation homes. Hendrix thought a life built on cattle and sheep was just fine, and the two, the rancher and the town, settled into a prolonged battle over the meaning of progress.

''When other people can ruin your life, it doesn't matter if it's big government or big business,'' Kelton told me once. ''Above all, I cherish freedom.”

The Time It Never Rained is considered Kelton’s greatest work. It takes place in the 1950s during a drouth that Texans talk about as often as the Alamo. 

Kelton covered the drouth while working at the San Angelo newspaper. “Most of my friends and many of my relatives were fighting the battle at ground zero,” Kelton wrote. “I watched them, and I bled with them, inside.” 

Kelton contended that the drouth explains to Easterners the politics of the Great Plains, the rainless land west of the 98th meridian. “Those not strong enough either did not cross the line or retreated after being bruised by the demands of that uncompromising land,” Kelton wrote in an introduction to The Time It Never Rained. “Those who remained became tough, resilient and almost militantly independent.” axlotl The drouth in Central Texas today exceeds the 1950s.

The Time It Never Rained ends with a horrific scene of both fire and flood that took everything Charlie Flagg owned. He’s left with his wife, Mary, his ranch hand, Manuel, his own resilience and, of course, the land:

“There’s still the land,” Charlie said, more to Mary than to Manuel. “A man can always start again. A man always has to.”

He didn’t think what he said was reaching her now, but it would. Tomorrow it would.

Texas is in the midst of another drouth, one that exceeds the hell of the 1950s for much of the central part of the state. We are doing it this time without Elmer Kelton — which is exactly the way a West Texas cowboy would expect it to be.

''I don't know what to expect as we look into the future,'' Kelton told me in 2000. ''Each generation has to find its own way.'' We will, I guess, but it helps to still be able to read a guide and a sage, someone who has been down that road before.

The Prologue from The Time It Never Rained:

It crept up out of Mexico, touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading then in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar upon the land.

Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede to brown puddles of mud that their livestock would not touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west wind relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. They watched the grass slowly lose its green, then curl and fire up like dying cornstalks.

Farmers watched their cotton make an early bloom in its stunted top, produce a few half-hearted bolls and then wither.

Men grumbled, but you learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones. No one expected another drouth like that of ’33. And the really big dries like 1918 came once in a lifetime.

Why worry? they said. It would rain this fall. It always had.

But it didn’t. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.