My wife always knows what's coming whenever her hometown of Cuba, Kansas comes up in conversation.* She always knows I'm going to tell the story of the first time I went there with her. We've been married for more than 11 years, so we're now in that early stage of finishing each other's stories. And I suspect that the "first time I went to Cuba" story has been told more than most.
At first she thought I was poking fun at the size of her hometown -- Cuba, Kansas, pop. 220 or so, -- but I think over time she has come to realize that while, yes, I am poking fun at the size of her hometown, I am also in wonder about the place. Cuba is really small. It had a brief burst of national (and perhaps even international) fame because a wonderful
To get to Cuba from Kansas City, you drive along Highway 36, a pleasant two-lane highway that was once part of the Pony Express. I call it pleasant, and it is when you're actually moving ... but like so many two-lane country roads it can be excruciating to drive. You can and will get stuck behind slow-moving cars, trucks, tractors, burros or one of the Molina brothers for hours at a time. I'm fairly certain that the Pony Express' failed in large part because the riders would get so frustrated after getting stuck behind a particularly slow truck on Highway 36. It's like they finally said, "Forget this."
Anyway, I knew Cuba was small before I ever went there. The first thing I remember Margo telling me was that she was in a graduating class of 12*.
But it was that first drive that made me understand. We were driving along, farmland on both sides of the road, when suddenly she said to me: "Slow down." I look at the speedometer ... I'm doing the speed limit.
"I'm not speeding," I said
"No," she said. "Slow down. It's coming up here on the left."
I am not exaggerating: I was looking around and I saw nothing. NOTHING. I didn't even see a farmhouse, much less a town. She said again, only more insistently, "slow down!" And then she pointed at ... the only way I could describe her target was "a driveway." A driveway leading to nowhere. In memory, I recall the driveway to Cuba being dirt or maybe gravel, but in our return trips I have noticed that it is actually paved. I always ask, "Did they pave that road," to which Margo -- pretty persuasively, I must admit -- suggests that they haven't paved a road in Cuba in quite some time.
"There's my school," she said, as and she pointed out the window, and once again I saw nothing but trees. It occurred to me then that maybe Cuba was like one of those Magic Eye pictures where everyone else can see the beautiful woman in the boat or the flying Unicorn, and I see nothing at all. But then we went around a bend and sure enough, there was a school. And then there were a few houses, a few small streets, and some real dirt roads. This was Cuba. This was where my wife-to-be had grown up.
And I was mesmerized. Still am. I grew up in cities. I never thought I grew up in particularly big cities -- in fact, it was hammered in my head that the places I have lived are considered small markets by Major League Baseball -- but the places where I lived were unquestionably cities with neighborhoods and traffic and McDonalds and Baskin Robbins and malls and all those other things. When I lived in Cleveland, I thought of Akron as a small town. When I lived in Charlotte, I thought of Greensboro as a small town. Even when I lived in Augusta, which I had considered a small town, I thought of Aiken as even smaller.
But none of these are small in the way that Cuba is small, in the way that little places in the Heartland are small. There is quite a lot of this in
This, I suppose, is why the story of Ashland, Kansas and women's basketball has me so enthralled. Ashland is a lot like Cuba. It's bigger in some ways (There are about 800 people there -- and it is the Clark County seat) and smaller in others (it's out in the Western part of the state, which is more desolate than Cuba's North Central Kansas). But it more ways, they are alike. For good and for bad, everything feels far away.
Among the bad is this: The closest mammogram machine to Ashland is two and a half hours away, in Wichita. Mammogram machines, you know, are used to detect the early stages of breast cancer -- the No. 1 form of cancer for women in the United States. The numbers are pretty staggering: The most commonly recited statistic I hear is that one in eight women in the U.S. will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives.
Well, at some point a young guy in Ashland named
So, Anderson started to make all the requisite calls to set up a charity high school girls basketball game ... and he found what almost everyone who tries such things finds: The rules are against it. Apparently Anderson was allowed to set up a game, but by State Association rules only three high school players on each team were allowed to play in it. Or some such thing. The idea died before it even was born ...
Only this: Benjamin Anderson is not really the sort of guy who lets ideas die. He is pretty relentless. And so, he decided to go right to the person who sparked his mind about women's basketball in the first place. He called
What followed -- all the calls and people who volunteered to help -- is the same story as the ending of
The Kansas and Kansas State cheerleaders were there. The Kansas State pep band was there. A halftime dunk team was there. A couple of opera singers were there to perform the national anthem and
I wanted to make it there myself, but I was pulled away to bigger cities for the World Series. I did write a short bit about it for
I often wonder why the George Bailey scene in