Spring: Memories of a Childhood Outdoors


If you’re just now getting in on this I am writing a little bit about my life growing up in Iowa. As I said in Part One we grew up in a time when things were pretty peaceful. At least to us. I think there were some guys going over to fight in Korea but if this bothered my folks I didn’t hear about it. Our dads went to work and came back home for lunch and went out to work on the cars and trucks or in the garden. Sometimes my dad would go out and chip golf balls in the back yard. Our moms kept house and had long phone conversations with the other mothers and were there for us when we wanted. My mom always landscaped our yard with a lot of flowers. She had peonies, castor beans and four o’clocks and she even planted corn in the corners. I thought this was weird but my mom said “I think it’s a beautiful plant.” We kids spent all our time outdoors. If the weather was halfway decent which it usually was and even if it wasn’t we just bundled up and went anyway. The only time we were indoors is if there was a thunderstorm and a tornado warning or coming in sideways in a blizzard.


Spring was a time of water. The snow would melt all around our local area but what we didn’t think about as kids was that snow was melting way up north, too. All that snow melt went in to the rivers and caused flooding. I can’t remember what year they put in the dikes along the Iowa River but when I was young they weren’t in yet.  So every spring the Iowa River and Linn Creek (which we pronounced “crick”) overflowed their banks. I felt sorry for the people who lived nearby but it was exciting to drive out to the old power plant or be on top of the bluff at the cemetery and see miles and miles of flooded fields. Our big recreation park Riverview where the public swimming pool was located would be a giant lake and you couldn’t drive north out of town on Highway 14. A bridge on Highway 14 went across the Iowa River at the park.

The farmers would be waiting for a break so they could go out and plow their fields and eventually there would be a break and they’d plow and then my dad would wait for it to rain again. Then he and I would get in the car, drive some place east or south of town and go walk the muddy fields looking for arrowheads. My dad knew where to look and he got permission from the farmers to go. My dad would say, “Don’t walk on the corn coming up. Stay inside the rows.” It was just correct behavior for the privilege of walking out there. My dad would say, “Look for an unusual shape”. And he would also say, “Don’t look hard. Just scan the area and you will see a shape or color that doesn’t fit.” Our boots would be caked with mud. I called it “mud foot” and it was hard to walk. But every once in a while there would be something that didn’t fit and there it would be. Mostly hide scrapers but sometimes a whole arrowhead. I still have two small hatchet heads. My dad would say, “It fascinates me to think that I am holding something and the last person to hold it was maybe the person who made it.”

I credit my dad with teaching me how to see. I had so much practice seeing while walking those plowed fields. I can find anything now.

Sometimes it was a beautiful day. A little cool, very clear and breezy. Hawks would be circling right over our heads. I tried whistling to them. Sometimes they would whistle back and we  would have a short conversation before they would move on as if to say, “Nice talking with ya but I’m on the hunt for breakfast.” Whenever I see a hawk now I always try to make conversation. They always look, at least. What is she saying? Terrible accent. Sometimes they whistle in reply. Or so I’d like to think.

Spring is a time of wind in Iowa. Strong steady wind from the north and perfect for flying kites. The best part was letting the kite go. It would go so high! I could barely see it! “What if an airplane hits it, Dad?”  I don’t know why I worried about this. Airplanes were rare in the 50s. When an airplane flew by we would run until we saw it and crane our necks. It was a special occasion.

Dad would make the appropriate amount of tail from ripped bed sheets so the kite wouldn’t whip around in frantic circles and then we’d let it fly. There is a lot of open space in Iowa so a kid can let the kite go a long ways without issues. Dad would say, “Let’s send a message to the kite” and we’d write a note. He’d tear a little hole in the middle of the note and string it on the kite string. Up that note would go. Can I remember what I wrote? Not at all. But it doesn’t matter. We were sending a message into the stratosphere.

Late spring in Iowa is also a time of tornados. Sometimes we would go to bed and suddenly mom would be at our bedroom door saying get to the basement now and we would grab a blanket and run down the basement stairs to huddle in the southwest corner until the storm passed. Mom said the southwest corner was the best corner. She said that tornados usually travel from southwest to northeast so if we were hit the debris would fly away from us. Is this scientific? Beats me. It’s just what she said.

When a storm hit in the day time Mom would tell us to turn on the TV and see if the screen glowed a certain way. If it did the tornado was imminent. She’d then tell us to go to the side of the house away from the direction from where the storm was coming from and open the windows a crack. She said this would equalize the pressure and maybe the house would not fly to bits. She said the reason a tornado would make houses fly apart was that the pressure inside the tornado was less than the pressure inside the house and that made the house explode when the tornado came close by.

I loved and was terrified of wall clouds. The colors in a wall cloud could be a weird  kind of green. There would be a wall cloud coming from the  west (all our weather came from the west) and the wind would blow furiously toward the cloud. When the edge of the cloud was on top of us everything would go silent. Eerily silent. No birds. No nothing. And then the gust front would hit. It would hit like crazy. Rain would be coming down in torrents. Lightning so ferocious and thunder so loud that the house shook.

A huge funnel cloud touches down in Iowa (AP Photo/Lori Mehmen)

Once before a wall cloud hit I looked up and saw little tiny tornados forming way up high. Then they disappeared. I have loved weather ever since. Nature’s fury and majesty.

After the storm and the danger of lightning passed our street would be flooded because the storm drains couldn’t handle all the water. We’d go out and run and splash. It was a very good time.

In May my dad and I would go over to Lennox where he worked. It was my mom’s birthday on May 15th and he would pick armfuls of lilacs to give to her. Those lilac bushes towered over our heads but the heavy blooms made the branches bend down to greet us. Here we are the flowers would say. Come bury your face in our lavender fragrance.  To this day I still love lilacs. They are my favorite flower. There is something about that scent that fills me with an almost indescribable joy and bliss.


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