From “Tell It Slant”: Fighting for A Future

Adapted from Tell It Slant, a biography of Chuck Fager, by Emma Lapsansky-Werner.

St. Paul, Kansas, 1939

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
                           — Yogi Berra

Plowing to a fork in the road.

This story begins with a young man coming to a fork, pushing a mule-drawn plow down a long furrow on a small farm in southeastern Kansas, in summer heat, circa 1939.

The young man was Callistus Fager, known as “Click” to his friends. On that day, like so many, Kansas farming would have been sweaty, dusty work. But that work was about all that was available. Kansas, like much of the United States, was mired in what is now called the “Great” Depression.

Even many years later, Click Fager remembered the unfamiliar noise he’d heard behind the plow, that summer day: a buzzing that wasn’t a farm sound.

Yanking on the reins, Click paused the mule, glanced around. Nothing unusual nearby: fields and low rolling hills. But the buzzing continued.

The DC-3, a popular new plane in the late 1930s, later widely used by the military in World War Two.

Then Click looked up: an airplane.

Aircraft were not unknown here in 1939, but overhead they were infrequent, especially above this thinly-populated stretch of the Great Plains.

St. Paul, in Neosho County, Kansas.

Leaning back to stare, Click saw something more than a shiny metal tube with wings and whirling propellors. Click saw a possible future — a future beyond that mule, beyond those low hills, beyond Kansas, and beyond the 950-person village of St. Paul. So began a relationship between Chuck’s father’s imagination and aircraft — a relationship that would shape not only his life, but the lives of no fewer than a dozen other people.

Kansas-Neosho County in red

But how was Click to take that fork? He had graduated from the small high school in St. Paul. But what next? The oldest of nine, there was no money for college, and no tradition of “higher education” in his family.

And St. Paul was what it had always been; not much but farming there; no airport. The Fagers had been tilling its soil for two-plus generations. They had come to America from Germany, picking up some Irish on the way, among waves of others filling a continuing convoy of ships.

Were they fleeing religious oppression, Catholics escaping a nascent German Empire which was a feuding meld of anti-Catholic Protestant and Enlightenment secularism? Dodging imperial military conscription, poverty or criminal records? A mix of some — or all — of these factors?

An Osage chief, circa 1850s

And what had they found in the new country, beyond land appropriated from the previous Native peoples? How did the Fagers find their way to what was then called Osage Mission, built by Jesuit missionaries (also expelled from Germany, but welcome here). The Jesuits had intended to convert the Osage natives, and then to care for them under the mantle of the “true” church of Catholicism.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, a wave of Iroquois imperial conquests had pushed the Osage people toward what would become eastern Kansas. The Osage, in turn, had dominated other area native peoples, until — beginning in the 1830s — a demonstration of the U. S. government’s “Manifest Destiny,” known as the “Trail of Tears” had compelled this montage (and some others) of native peoples to move again.

They clustered together south and west in what was then labeled “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). Osage Mission was soon renamed St. Paul, and in the 1890s was passed along to a smaller Catholic order, the “Passionists,” whose focus was on relief for those who are “poor and suffering.”

A 1920s pro-KKK, anti Catholic & anti-immigrant cartoon: the figures peeping over the wall were meant to be Catholics (Rome), Irish (rum) and Jewish (red-Communists or anarchists).

How had the newcomer Fagers coped with the aftereffects of the American Civil War—effects  which lingered, for many generations, in the south-central plains?

For that matter, did the Fagers have to conceal their German heritage during World War One? Was there trouble in the 1920s, when a revitalized and militantly anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan held numerous meetings in their southeastern region, and may have garnered as many as sixty thousand white-sheeted members among Kansans ?

Chuck recalls pressing many of these questions on his paternal grandparents, Bill and Sereta Fager, when he last saw them in St. Paul. That was in 1975, and Chuck was on a long cross-country drive from Boston to San Francisco (more, later, on the reason for that journey west).

CHUCK: It had been several years. When I arrived, my grandfather Fager was sitting in a simple rocking chair, on the small lawn in front of their tiny post-farm retirement cottage in St. Paul. Lanky and taciturn, he wore much-faded overalls and a white straw fedora pushed back from his forehead. He rose to greet me, and said, “Hello Charles. Haven’t seen you in a day or two.”

Then he sat back down, began to rock slowly, and pulled out a pocketknife.

Unfolding the blade, he plucked a small dark stick from beside the chair and began to whittle it into curled fragments that skittered across his overalls down into the green grass. Sereta bustled back and forth from the house, and often made comments, but usually referred my queries to him.

It was not a productive conversation. To almost every question, his answer was the same, like a mantra, and this is it in full:
“Couldn’t prove it by me.”

I noticed, when we finished and I stood up, that the grass around the rocker was thickly speckled with the dark shavings, as if he had sat there for many of the warm Kansas days whittling heaps of twigs into — nothing discernible.

Afterward, I mused that he was like a trial witness with something to hide, or upholding a habitual code of omertá, even if all the secrets had long since been forgotten. So that part of my background remains mostly a blank, perhaps a mystery.

Or maybe not: what if the forgetting and silence were among the keys to their American Dream?

Emma: In a series of Wonderful Wizard of Oz novels, L. Frank Baum’s early-twentieth-century fictional accounts of Kansas present a snapshot of how inhospitable and bleak the Kansas plains could be.

And historian Clifford R. Hope, Sr. later set the plight of the Fager family — and that of thousands of other Kansans — into a larger Depression-Era context:

The course of Kansas History has not always run smoothly. The turmoil which beset the area in territorial days and during the Civil War gave the state the name of “bleeding Kansas.” Since that time there have been Indian wars and grasshopper invasions, to say nothing of bitter political struggles, particularly in the 1890’s. . . .

But none of these calamity periods can compare from the standpoint of financial loss, long lasting distress, suffering, and discouragement with the decade of the 1930’s. …

The great depression which began in the fall of 1929 affected Kansas just as it did every other part of the country, but on top of it there was superimposed almost a decade of drought and dust storms. In other words, Kansas and neighboring Great Plains states got a double dose of misery and calamity ….

Along with Click Fager’s memories of Kansas farm country dust and heat, he carried — throughout his life — the powerful image of that airplane buzzing above the field. Seeing and hearing it made visible what he yearned to do; in sum: “I wanted to fly.”

But how could that ever become possible? The nearest real city, Joplin, Missouri, was 60 miles away; Kansas City and Wichita were hours farther, over slow pre-interstate roads, by car. For Click and his eight siblings, they would need a bus to move that many.

Though the Fager family didn’t have a bus, they eventually did have a big radio to bring the tempting outside world sounds into the house where Click lived with his parents. The radio set was housed in a big, polished wood cabinet, with glass tubes glowing orange inside, and large knobs on the front to turn the shiny needle on a big round dial for better reception.

A wire antenna, strung under a windowsill, stretched across the yard and was tied to a tree limb. It enabled the Fagers to hear “The Grand Ole Opry” from Nashville, and live baseball games featuring the legendary St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, with exciting play-by-play commentary, often delivered by a golden-voiced young announcer from Iowa named Ronald Reagan.

But St. Louis was 340 miles away. Chicago, was 630 miles. They had airplanes in those cities. They also had other futures . . . . Could Click ever grab onto one of them?

Click Fager would indeed have his different future. Getting to it would require taking a fork that led straight into death-defying risks — but it would come.

That alternative — at first unrecognized — was ushered in by an announcement that boomed through living room radios on September 1, 1939: Germany had invaded Poland. A Second World War had begun.

Poland was more than 5,000 miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean. One wonders if Click had ever thought about it. But the fork in his life’s road, carved from the Poles’ agony, was soon as close to Click Fager as an anti-aircraft shell screaming into the sky, aimed to blow him out of it.

The war went on at a distance for two years and more, before the December 7, 1941, Japanese sneak-attack on the U. S. Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii drew the United States into a war now engulfing much of the world. The Franklin Roosevelt administration had been feverishly preparing for combat for more than two years, building new war industries and drafting an army and navy almost from scratch.

In the pre-war year of 1937, the Army Air Corps had graduated only 184 pilots. By mid-1941, Roosevelt had mandated creation of a vast American air armada, for which at least 30,000 new pilots were needed, fast. By the war’s end 250,000 pilots had been trained.

This huge expansion opened the doors wide for legions of young men who wanted to fly. If they passed a tough battery of exams, they were sworn in and shipped off to pilot training.

Click Fager saw his chance and seized it: he crammed for the exams, passed, and was soon in a military cockpit.

The risks began right away: more than 15,000 of his fellows died in training-related crashes inside the U.S. borders, war casualties who never saw battle.

Four generations of Fagers in St. Paul, in 1944. At left: William Fager; his mother, Sarah Fager; Lieutenant Callistus (Click) Fager, holding Charles (Chuck).

There were other complications in Click’s new life. Pearl Harbor preceded the marriage of Callistus Fager and Alice Clare O’Brien Fager by just twenty days, so there were new family ties — between the rural Fagers and the upwardly-mobile, town-centered O’Briens — to be built and managed. And within a year, in December, 1942, there would be a son — Charles — to be melded into these two quite different family units, in wartime.

But in the meantime, Click — both smart and fortunate — was flying into his new future in an expanding, and– literally– exploding world.

A U. S. B-24 bomber that was part of Operation Tidal Wave, a massive raid on Nazi-controlled oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania on August 1, 1943. The raid involved nearly 200 bombers and was meant to decimate enemy supplies. But it was badly-planned, disrupted by weather, and was a deadly failure. Lt. Click Fager, was piloting one of the B-24s, and barely escaped alive.

Tell It Slant is now available in paperback and Kindle versions. For details, click here.

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