View from afar

“Oh, you’re from Kansas-I’ve never met anyone from Kansas before,” is the most common response of Chicagoans. This makes me at least as exotic as a Fiji Islander in their eyes.

I never felt like a Kansan until I moved out of the “Wheat State” or “Land of Ahs” or whatever new marketing slogan the wise folks in Topeka are using to define us. I became a Kansan when I moved to Illinois just as I become more conscious of being an American when I’m in Canada or Europe.

Kansas has serious image problems. It is the TV sitcom metaphor for “remote and unknowing.” For many Chicagoans, Kansas is either Fort Riley or Leavenworth Federal Prison.

The Army guys remember going to Kansas and blowing things up. The Leavenworth guys remember blowing things up and then being sent to Kansas. Both think of Junction City as the typical Kansas town.

There are “travel” experts on Kansas. These all tell the same story.

“In July of 1987, we drove non-stop from St. Louis to Denver on Interstate 70 with three screaming kids in the backseat; the air conditioner went out in Kansas City and we ran out of gas in Salina and by the time we hit Goodland, I screamed, ‘Spare me from this ever, ever again.'”

The only positive highlight they remember are billboards advertising the world’s largest ball of twine.

I ask the travel experts to carefully pronounce the name of the town where they ran out of gas.


“Gotcha, you don’t know nothing about Kansas!”

The greatest burden for an expatriate Kansan is, “Gee Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

Responding to this bit of wit-or near wit, or half wit by people who don’t know they are ignorant cliche-mongers-is a formidable challenge.

Option A. I throw myself on the floor with my arms and legs in the air like a dying cockroach, screaming with laughter and promising that as soon as I regain my composure I will write down their incredibly original joke so as not to forget it. I have friends so ignorant they rush off to find a pen and paper to help me.

Option B. I smile nicely and say, “I left Kansas to escape the village idiot-but you look suspiciously like his twin brother.”

Option C: I do a mini book and movie review. “The movie, ‘Wizard of Oz’ shows Kansas in black and white-the actual state exists in living color. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books, lived in Chicago after a bitter business failure in South Dakota-but ‘Gee Toto, I don’t think we’re in South Dakota anymore,’ sounds stupid.”

Smug intellectuals who have read newspaper stories about the Kansas Board of Education are the worst.

“Oh, if you’re going to Kansas could you bring me back a Creationist?” How do I explain to them that Creationists are prickly and brittle and tend to break when you pack them as luggage.

Recently I got into an academic arm wrestling contest with an African American over which of us knew the most about Black history. We shamelessly dropped the names of authors and their books and articles on each other.

He acknowledged, “You’re not bad for an old white guy,” and asked where I came from.

“Kansas,” I said.

“Well, I guess any state that gave America a crazy anti-slavery guy like John Brown can’t be all bad.”

I wanted to hug him for being both original-and right.

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