(To listen to the audio of this blog post, use the purple play button.)
“Who Wants a Baby?”
It’s Friday night August 8, 1913, at Riverside Park’s airdome outdoor theater in Hutchinson Kansas. Alta June Barnes Beck, 35, is watching her husband, Konrad Christopher Beck, 37, on stage, stirring up the crowd. He couldn’t be happier.
“When will this heat wave ever end?” Alta overheard a man ask his wife, or a woman she presumed was his wife.
“We might as well stay out late,” she responded as she waved a hand fan in front of her face. “With this humidity, it won’t be cool enough to sleep until midnight.”
I like a joke as much as anyone, considered Alta, but sometimes, Konrad goes too far. Tonight’s a perfect example.
Alta knows that people enjoy the shows at the park theater, but many locals attend with the expectation that they’ll go home with a valuable prize from the Country Store raffle. Tonight, every paying customer has a numbered lottery ticket.
But, thinks Alta, Konrad got carried away this time when he started advertising that a real, live baby, would be the top prize in the raffle.
It’s too bad and it’s unnecessary. We’ve had a lot of people contact us, and some of them are upset. “Is the prize an actual human baby or will it be a baby chicken or a pig?” they ask. Konrad answers, “It’s a real baby, the process is legal, and the adoption papers are all filled out except for the winner’s name.”
Probate Judge Charles Fontron has also been visited by those who believe this ill-advised adoption is improper, illegal, or both. The concerned citizens want to know what will happen if a single man wins the drawing, or some unscrupulous character.
Konrad loves the attention. He can’t help it, Alta continues thinking. He’s a showman. He reminds me of the famous entrepreneur P. T. Barnum who advertised his immense, traveling entertainment as “the Greatest Show on Earth.” Using his gift, Barnum had a way of learning what the public wanted, then providing it. In some ways, Konrad has the same talent.
But, promoting Charles Stratton as General Tom Thumb, a mature man, isn’t the same thing as a baby. Stratton, less than two feet tall, and weighing just sixteen pounds, agreed to be exhibited at shows around the world.
But, babies can’t agree on anything.
Judge Fontron trusts my judgment, thinks Alta. He regularly directs me to find good homes for babies and children who aren’t wanted. And, I remember two years ago when District Court Judge Banta assigned me a more difficult task, finding a troubled seventeen-year-old girl a home to offer her moral support as an alternative to our jail.
My concern is about future adoptions, considered Alta. Will this crazy Konrad joke lead people to believe that he and I would ever permit a baby entrusted to us, who’s up for adoption, to be turned over to strangers without a careful examination of their character?
I’ll always serve the children who need caring homes. Hopefully, the public won’t see this public display of winning a baby as just a wild scheme to make money. If even a few people believe this silliness, then a baby who needs adopting may not get the opportunity to find a loving home through our efforts, or at a hospital, or with a minister.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announces Konrad, as he wipes perspiration from his forehead, “Get your tickets out. Our drawing for the baby is about to start.”
Alta begins to recall many of the children she’s helped by finding them new parents. But in the blink of an eye, Alta’s suddenly aware that the raffle number has been announced and Roy Cochran, 35, manager of the Bell Telephone Company, is walking towards the stage. Konrad is holding a baby, or what appears to be a baby, bundled in a sheet. People in the audience are standing up to get a better view of the stage.
“Is it real?” a man, near Alta, asks.
As Konrad, master of ceremonies and sheriff of Reno County, hands Roy the baby, there’s a gasp of astonishment from the audience. Konrad asks, “Will you take good care of it?” The telephone manager replies, “I’ll see to it that it has a good home.”
Alta hears a nearby woman remark, “I’m glad the little waif has found a good father.”
Another woman comments with disgust in her voice, “Why, suppose some worthless, no account fellow had drawn the baby, wouldn’t it have been awful?”
As Mr. Cochran leaves the stage with his new baby, to present to his wife, Mamie, he’s soon stopped by John Beck, Konrad’s brother and partner at the park. John speaks to Roy, and the latter hands the baby to John.
Alta understands, but does the crowd? This whole affair has been a joke. The real baby is two-month-old Lela Jean Beck, the daughter of Hattie and John Beck.
Alta watches as Reverend William Price, 55, approaches her through the crowd and considers her options. It’s too late to run or hide.
“Mrs. Beck, good evening to you,” says Reverend Price, as he tips his hat and smiles. Price is a minister without a church, serving as a district superintendent of the Kansas Children’s Home Society.
“Good evening, Mr. Price,” replies Alta. “Are you enjoying the show?”
“It’s a show all right,” answers Price. “It appears the publicity about giving away a baby tonight was a stunt, is that correct?”
“Yes, a joke,” said Alta. “The baby girl belongs to John and Hattie Beck, my in-laws.”
“Our agency has placed over fourteen hundred children in Christian homes in the state without ever resorting to a raffle. I hope the other children you offer for adoption are protected by a more strenuous protocol before handing over the innocents,” states Price.
Alta lets his comment hang in the air. She doesn’t think it deserving of a response. She knows that Konrad is doing what Konrad does. Alta doesn’t always agree with him, but she sure doesn’t need a busy-body outsider, like Price, judging her or her husband.
In the moment, Alta feels like inviting Price to go hunting with her spirited and feisty husband who’s as intelligent and courageous as a Teddy Roosevelt. If those two men, Konrad and Price, were outdoors together for any length of time, she’d be eager to hear a recap of their differing views of the world, especially knowing how much her husband likes to win an argument.
Konrad is again addressing the crowd and he’s holding something cradled in his arms. Could it be another baby? thinks Alta and Price as they wait for Konrad’s explanation.
Sheriff Konrad Beck holds up a baby piglet, who loudly squeals his discomfort to the crowd. “Get your tickets out!” orders the master of ceremonies, “We have another baby to raffle off tonight!”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.