‘Back East’ not just matter of geography

I was leaving the post office the other day, and I made brief accidental eye contact with a young woman just getting out of her car. I didn’t know her. But she smiled at me. Just smiled for no reason other than that we were both part of the human race. I couldn’t believe it. That’s something you never see Back East.

Did I just say “Back East?”

I can’t believe I used that term. I guess I’ve finally acclimated back to Middle America. It’s not an expression you hear in Washington or New York or Boston, cities where I’ve spent much of the last 20 years. So I began contemplating the meaning of that expression – Back East – in all its rich geographical, historical, psychological and sociological context.

First, a parenthetical grammatical explanation: I am capitalizing “Back East” because we Kansans tend to capitalize it – both in writing and in the way we say it.

I can only explain the term by placing myself back where I was born – on the far western edge of Kansas. When I was growing up, Back East stood for any place east of an imaginary north-south line running through the middle of Kansas. So Lawrence, where we sometimes drove many long hours to visit my Uncle John and Aunt Esther, was Back East, as was that exotic place, Kansas City. The way we saw it, it didn’t really matter how far east, because Back East is an attitude as well as a geographical designation. It is foreign, it is uppity. It is where people don’t know the real values in life.

The term originated in the frontier days to designate where settlers had come “from.” Back East was the settled area of the country. Anything west was the frontier. In western Kansas, we considered even the central and eastern part of our state as “foreign.” It was, after all, a land of rainfall and hills and valleys. My mother grew up in the central part of the state, which to the casual eye is flat prairie not that different from western Kansas, but it was so different to us that we pushed it farther east, referring to it as eastern Kansas rather than central Kansas. In central Kansas, they talk about “Back East,” meaning everything east of them. No doubt St. Louis is considered Back East in Kansas City.

The word “back” is itself pregnant with meaning. When I moved to Chicago, my Ulysses friends and neighbors said I moved “back” East, even though I’d never been there before. The term carries the sense of giving up on the frontier and moving “back,” a chicken-hearted thing to do. A true pioneer sticks it out. If on the other hand, you moved to Colorado or all the way to California, you were going “Out West.” Pushing the boundaries, moving further to the edge of a frontier. That was far more noble. North and south, by the way, were irrelevant – the world and values in general were measured on an east-west continuum. For sure, going Back East was a cowardly act, a virtual rejection of one’s humble beginnings.

My own family did not actually subscribe to these East-West notions, though we used the terms along with our neighbors. We were Mennonites who had come from Russia in 1874. And with a grandfather who moved his family from Canada to North Carolina to Colorado to who knows where else, directions were largely irrelevant. Except that Grandpa always knew where the center was, the place to return to – Kansas, the very center of Kansas, in fact. My parents once moved to Washington state where my father worked in the logging business, quite a contrast to dirt farming in western Kansas. But for some reason, several years before I was born, he moved the family back to western Kansas. How he could leave a cabin in the shadow of snowcapped Mt. Baker for the blowing dust of western Kansas, none of us could comprehend.

It’s hard to believe I’m just like my grandfather and father, a virtual homing pigeon, returning at last. What is it that makes me feel so comfortable in the midst of gusty wind and thunderstorms and tornados and blizzards? But I’ve done it, coming back to the middle, and now I’ve caught myself beginning to use a phrase I didn’t utter for 40 years.

Before you know it, I may start raising two fingers – index and middle finger – of my left hand off the steering wheel in greeting when passing a stranger on the road. I believe it’s a western Kansas thing, a sort of secret code of random friendliness (a full hand wave would be too forward). Apparently, it’s a deeply imbedded somewhere in me, because I caught myself doing it a couple of weeks ago out on E. 1200 Road. I hope it didn’t startle or offend the person in the red pickup that I passed.