Nebraska Center for Writers

THE CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY
by WRIGHT MORRIS

TO PUT THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE, Hapke was born in a hayfield near Küssnacht where his mother had been at work with a hand scythe. To his knowledge she had never been to Zurich, looked from the window of a train, or had her picture taken. The image of her retained by Hapke is that of a small woman hugging a large loaf of bread which she struggled to slice as she drew the knife toward her, as if cutting its throat. Was it, then, to his mother that he owed his preference for American sliced bread?
A short, wide man, with hands like gnarled roots and the habit of rudely squinting at people, Hapke was offered work by Dr. Soellner, an American who liked to vacation in Küssnacht. This opportunity faced him with a moral decision: a choice between the fatherland and another country. Years later it would shame Hapke to admit that both his affections and his allegiance had shifted. He preferred Americans.
That did not confuse Hapke, as it did so many others, about his own place. Dr. Soellner's handsome wife, a native of Basel, liked the way that he addressed her as gnadige Frau. Over Christmas she invited him into her kitchen for Kaffee mit Schlag and a slice of her stollen. He had combed his hair, and he sat at the table with his cap in his lap. In those days there were no bridges over the bay to San Francisco, and many of Dr. Soellner's patients had to use the ferry. Hearing their laughter and hearty German talk, Hapke felt right at home.
Yet his reluctance to make friends, or seek out younger women, led Frau Soellner to conclude that he longed for his homeland, as she did. She persuaded Dr. Soellner to give him a year's wages and his passage back to Küssnacht. Hapke enjoyed the passage through the Panama Canal, but within the year he was back in California. In that time Dr. Soellner had retired from his practice and he and his wife had departed for Basel. Hapke found work as a janitor and gardener at a school for younger children. What he liked especially was that as the children grew older, and he liked them less, they were sent to another school. These were the years of his greatest contentment. He was fond of children, and they were delighted with a man they called Mr. Happy, thinking that was his name. If he had been one to put his feelings into words he would have said that children were the best people.
Then a change was made, welcome to the children, but a cause of concern to Hapke....

Reprinted with permission
from Collected Stories: 1948-1968
Copyright © 1986
by Wright Morris
David R. Godine


WILL'S BOY: A MEMOIR
by WRIGHT MORRIS

I WAS BORN on the sixth of January, 1910, in the Platte Valley of Nebraska, just south of the 41st parallel, just west of the 98th meridian, just to the north, or south, or a bit to the east of where it sometimes rained, but more than likely it didn't, less than a mile from what had once been the Lone Tree station of the Pony Express on the Overland Trail.
My father had come west from Ohio to begin a new life with the Union Pacific Railroad in Chapman, Nebraska. My mother had been born on the bluffs south of the Platte in a house with the cupola facing the view to the west. They met in the barber shop of Eddie Cahow, who had come up from Texas on the Chisholm Trail, but found that he preferred barbering to a life in the saddle. The open range had been closed by strips of barbed wire, and the plow, for both better and worse, had replaced the six-shooter and the man on horseback, a change predicted when the town called Lone Tree at its founding was changed to Central City before I was born. Early settlers felt, and with reason, that a Lone Tree might encourage maverick, wandering males, but discourage most marriageable females. My childhood impressions were not of the big sky, and the endless vistas, but of the blaze of light where the trees ended, the sheltered grove from where I peered at the wagons of the gypsies camped at its edge.
Six days after my birth my mother died. Having stated this bald fact, I ponder its meaning. In the wings of my mind I hear voices, I am attentive to the presence of invisible relations, I see the ghosts of people without faces. Almost twenty years will pass before I set knowing eyes on my mother's people. Her father, a farmer and preacher of the Seventh-Day Adventist gospel, shortly after her death would gather up his family and move to a new Adventist settlement near Boise, Idaho. My life begins, and will have its ending, in this abiding chronicle of real losses and imaginary gains....

Reprinted with permission
from Writing My Life: An Autobiography
Copyright © 1993
by Wright Morris
Black Sparrow Press

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