I think this is an extraordinary piece of thinking, bravery, and insight. I also think that it shows a way forward that many essays don’t. He doesn’t spell out specific things we can do. We’re smart enough to figure out what needs to be done. We just have to find the will to do it. Can we? Can you? Can I?
I live in a small town in Shropshire called Much Wenlock. I moved here in 2007. In the summer of that year it rained a lot. I mean, really, a lot. So much so that the town flooded. Weeks of steady rain had left the fields surrounding the town water-logged. The earth was sodden. So, when a sudden storm let go a heavy downpour, the land had no capacity left to absorb the moisture. Instead, the water poured off the fields and down into the town. You see, Much Wenlock, although it is 160 metres above sea level, sits in a bowl surrounded by arable land. It’s location in the landscape plus the geological composition of the land it sits within means that it is peculiarly prone to this type of flooding. So much so that it has been designated a Rapid Response Flood Catchment area at the highest level…
Fall in the Central Valley of California is not a season I look forward to except in one way. The weather finally calms down and stops being crazy hot. Other than that it’s not a pretty season. Here in the Valley everything is dry and crispy. The grasses are a crunchy brown. The grape vines and almond trees are coated with dust. The only place nice place for the eye to land is where the sprinklers have kept the lawns green and the gardens growing.
In the Midwest, however, things are different. In the Midwest Fall is my favorite season. Yes, it’s true that it’s time to go back to school and, yes, it’s true that I always dreaded that part. It even gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Where did that come from? I’ll never know. It just started up at the first part of September and I don’t even know when it went away. It just went away on its own.
Everything else about the rest of the season was pure bliss to me. There was the welcome chill in the air and the dry breezes that replaced the oppressive humidity and heat of summer. The leaves on the trees would turn colors and then they’d fall. We kids would be crazy wild running through the leaves and throwing and kicking them every which way. Mom would be standing there with one hand on her hip and the other on the handle of the rake wondering what had she done to get these crazy children. When I walked down the sidewalk I made sure to step on each and every leaf so as to hear the satisfying crunch. I still do this now. I am old and it’s been a life long habit. It takes me back to when I was young and I didn’t have a care in the world.
The wind would blow out of the gray northern sky and the leaves of the dried corn in Schultz’s field behind our house would rustle like paper flowers in a vase. Out in the back yard we’d look up and great flocks of starlings flew over head. When they were right above us Dad would say “Clap your hands! Loud!” and I would clap my hands loud and the birds would, for some reason, spread out from the center and fly away from the noise. Dad said they flew like that because they thought it was a gun shot.
My dad loved hickory nuts. Actually my dad loved anything that was free. Child of the depression he was very good at spotting a good deal when he saw one. He got out his burlap bags and we’d all pile in the car to go to some farmer’s woods where the tall shagbark hickory trees stood. Some years the squirrels got them first and our pickings were slim. Dad said don’t bother with nuts that have a hole in them. A hole meant that a worm that had chewed its way out of the shell and the nut meat would be ruined. In the winter my dad would sit and patiently crack the tough nuts and pick away at the interiors with a pick to get the meat out.
When I got older my dad would take my sister Toni and me to Polley’s farm north of town and we would all ride the barn horses out into the corn fields and then into the timber. My dad rode the horse with one hand on the reins and one hand propped on his hip western style. My sister and I tried to mimic him but we didn’t have the confidence to one-hand-it so we held the reins plow rein style and followed him out past the barn. Then we found little trails in the timber and rode all over until we came back to the edge of the corn field where the spoiled horses could see the barn. We let them loose while we clung to the horn for dear life and the horses ran back across the field. Poor horsemanship, I know. We didn’t know any better and besides we were young and loved the thrill of the running horse. Our legs were strong enough to grip and our balance was good enough so we never fell off. The horses ran in a straight line. There was nothing to impede them. I can’t remember how we slowed down. Maybe the horse went from the dead run to the trot to the walk instead of slamming on the brakes. Years later we drove out there and I recognized the house and barn but the field looked completely different.
We walked to school at Norris for Kindergarten, first, second and third grades. It was only 3 blocks from our house. As we got older we biked to Woodbury for 4th, 5th and 6th as long as the weather was good. Jamie, Cindy, Sally, Lindsay, and some other girls. I had a little wire basket attached to the handlebars of my Schwinn that I put my metal lunch box in. The Schwinn had great big fat tires. It must have been hard to pedal with its one gear and brakes that you engaged by pushing back on the pedal. The lunch box looked like a little house and my mom would put a hot dog in the thermos so I could have a hot sandwich with my soup at lunch time. This really embarrassed me for some reason. I really wanted shoe string potato chips that came in a can but I never got them.
When it rained we’d pile in our family cars one forward one backward so as to pack more kids in and then our mothers would car pool. There were no seat belts at that time and we always made it to school anyway. I don’t remember much about the moms except the backs of their heads. There was Dorothy Lund and, of course, my mom and Sally’s mom. Sally’s mom sometimes harped at us girls not to bite our fingernails. We’d hold on to the back of the seat and she could see if we were paying attention or not.
When we got old enough to go to Anson Junior High we could ride the bus. They let the bus company dedicate some of their buses to take the kids right to school. I had to walk to the corner bus stop and my mom was always late getting breakfast so she’d demand that I take a scrambled egg sandwich with me. I’d grouse and complain. “Mom! I’m going to be late for the bus!” She’d win and I would sullenly take the sandwich promising to eat it as I ran to the bus but I never did. As soon as I got out of sight of the house I’d throw it down the storm drain. Sometimes my friend Marjorie and I would walk all the way to Anson. Sometimes we’d walk in very cold weather. Our knees would be nearly frozen when we got there. We wore knee socks so our knees were bare. They were beet red when we got to school.
On the weekends we’d kind of turn into Huckleberry Finns and go walking around just to see what we could see or what trouble we could find. Walking up Elder Drive we would be out in the country in one block and there was the grain elevator and the railroad tracks and a dirt road that was called Beer Can Road for, guess what?, all the beer cans people threw out the windows into the ditches. We went just as far as we felt safe and then we’d walk back again. Once we walked all the way to Sutherland Station power plant. Sutherland Station was a great big giant brick building that seemed like the castle in the Wizard of Oz.
All the corn fields were stubble and the weeds in the ditches were dried and dead. If we found a dried up milk weed pod we’d take it. Such amazing nature! Everything was losing color. Color only came back if it rained and then it was a monochromatic pallet of browns, red browns and ochre. Winter was coming and when that happened the sky would be the same grey as the ground and the only color came from the rare pine tree here and there.
I have always been good at drawing people. I started in high school drawing portraits of people’s children. But I wasn’t VERY good. I was just adequate. In art school I needed to refine my technique. I listened to my TA’s when they said don’t draw a “face”. Draw a “head”. Which means observe the volume of a head and all its parts: eyes, nose, cheeks, mouth, forehead and try to convey the volume and shape of those parts and do it on the 2 dimensional surface of the paper. Get down in the dust of the graphite, charcoal and pastel and don’t be afraid to mull it around to achieve your goal. A face can seem complicated but it’s not really when you look closely and see what it’s really made up of. Cubes, spheres, pyramids, and cones. These are shapes we can all draw with a degree of confidence. When you put them together and add technique a portrait turns out to be something that is within the power of anybody who chooses to create. Then you add practice and the next thing you know you’ve got something quite nice.
In the winter of 1970 I spent a lot of time at George and Sarah’s house in the country north of Iowa City. The house was unpainted on the outside and gutted on the inside. They had taken out walls and it made sense in the winter when the only heat was from the cook stove in the kitchen. After a meal we would all gather in the living room and hang out until one by one we all fell asleep wherever we had been sitting. We were only 20 years old and we could sleep anywhere.
To get to George and Sarah’s house you had to drive down a dirt lane that was impassable in wet weather which was most of winter before it froze or in spring when it rained a lot. George found a truck somewhere that could handle the lane. It was a Dodge Power Wagon 4 wheel drive with a winch on the front and it was impressive. It was so high up off the ground that you had to climb up into it by grabbing on to whatever handhold you could get. When the motor was in low gear it roared and then the whole truck went slipping and sliding in the deeply rutted mud until we got to the house. Four or five of us would scrunch in together on the seat and George drove and everyone else bounced. We thought we were so cool.
One guy, who we called Baseball, lived for part of the year in a makeshift pile of brush. No one knew why he was called Baseball but no one cared. He was kind of wild and we were either in awe of him or terrified. We heard stories about how he would find mushrooms in the woods and eat them to see what would happen. He never ate one that was bad enough to kill him or put him in the hospital and I don’t know if it was sheer luck or what. Eventually he moved to Hawaii with his wife Abby where Abby was picked up by some unknown person, raped and strangled. They left her in a sugar cane field and Baseball moved back to the mainland.
In the years before the Hawaii move, Chris and Dan lived in a church south of town. I think they got their inspiration from Alice’s Restaurant. They had a huge billy goat that stunk to high heaven until a pack of dogs came and killed it. Then they skinned the billy goat and put the hide on the fence. Nobody missed that goat but it was sad anyway. Inside the church my boyfriend and Dan and the rest of the rock band they were in used the big meeting hall to practice. Chris and Dan got married there, too. All we thought about was ourselves, who wanted to be with whom, eating organically and living off the land.
The church was a good example of why taking out walls was a good idea when all you had was cook stove heat. It was not practical to remove walls in the church so in the winter Chris and Dan shut the doors to the meeting hall and retreated into the kitchen and dining room area which had been the vestibule. It was freezing in the meeting hall but in the kitchen it was lovely and warm. Outside a blizzard might howl but inside and snug under our quilts we watched as the orange glow of the fire in the stove played out on the walls late into the night.
I normally lived in a two story rooming house on Fairchild Street around the corner from Courier Hall. Courier Hall was a big brick dormitory on the University of Iowa campus. I lived there for a year and while there I had roommate named Debbie who was my complete opposite in personality. For example, her side of the dresser was a pile of detritus and my side was neatly organized. Almost bare. Debbie would go out and in the wee hours of the morning would climb up the fire escape conveniently located outside our window and bang on the window for me to let her in. These were the days of curfew for college age girls. One night she came back with blood dripping off her forehead. She claimed she had been struck by a police officer in a riot after a Vietnam war protest. Remember this was 1970 and stuff was going down everywhere. She claimed she was hit by a billy club but my guess was that she had tripped while running away. She was a great, big, fat liar and a really messed up person. I couldn’t stand living in the same room with her so at my earliest possible opportunity I moved into a room all by myself on the third floor.
However dorm life was really not my cup of tea so when I got a chance to move into the rooming house on Fairchild I jumped at the chance. I really wanted to be in charge of myself. Randy was our landlord and not much older than any of us. He and his sister Diane had the only full apartment in the house. The rest of us had single rooms. Our kitchen was in the basement where the only shower and toilet was, too. The shower was behind some posts and there wasn’t much privacy. Usually no one was around but if they were they respected you and didn’t look. We ate mung bean stew we made ourselves and Essene bread we got from the Food Co-op. Once I made a great big pot and that’s all I ate for breakfast , lunch and dinner for a week. It was good so I didn’t mind.
One of the saddest things I can think of is not knowing our parents and grandparents when they were young. What would we think of them if we met them? Pictures can tell something but they can’t tell the whole story. What was their handshake like? Did they smell like after shave or sweat? Were their clothes neat and tidy or were they rough and thread bare? What did they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Did they eat regularly? Were they fun to be around or were they serious?
I knew my dad’s dad when he was an old man. He lived near Cortland which is on the shores of Mosquito Lake in eastern Ohio. Warren, Ohio and Youngstown, Ohio are the biggest cities near there.
When my grandfather came from Canada to Ohio he was a young guy in his 20s. He found work in the factories. I’m told he was a tool and die maker or maybe that was my grandmother’s second husband Ephraim Whitaker. Memory sometimes fades with time. If, indeed, he was a tool and die maker these guys are machinists who make jigs, dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools, gauges, and other tools used in manufacturing processes. They are skilled artisans who learn their trade through a combination of academic coursework and hands-on instruction, with a substantial period of on-the-job training. It must have been an anathema to my grandfather who only wanted to be outdoors.
Ohio was mostly rural and farming when my grandfather came to live there. People were prosperous until the Great Depression hit. Until the Great Depression my grandfather did all right. He found a good woman who was my grandmother Daisy. She was of Scottish, Irish and German descent and she knew how to take care of things. What she didn’t know was how to take care of my grandfather when he was stinking drunk.
Daisy and Ed had 3 kids. There was a daughter Rita but she died in infancy. So it was my dad and his older brother Robert (Bob) who survived. You can tell by the looks on their faces that someone had really roughed them up to make them stand for the 2 photographs. They look beleaguered and sullen. What was going through their minds? The car must have been a big deal. The mother looks tiny and frail. The youngest boy, my dad, is barefoot. The overalls and dungarees on the boys are worn.
When granddad wasn’t getting on their case was he ever fun? Did he tousle their hair and tell them what a good job they did? I’m going to say, no, he didn’t, because dad didn’t do this for us either. Life to my dad was always serious when we were around. Joking and folly was for when he was with other people. Then he was the entertaining and witty. Dad got his serious side from his dad who aimed to do what was necessary and not mess around. I, in turn, got my focus from my dad. I also got the sadness. Luckily, my dad chose my mother Margie. Even though it was hard for them to be in a relationship it is what saved me and made me the hopeful person I am today. I’ll tell you about her in another story.
I think Ed was kind of pissed off about life. He had been in a logging accident when he was young and one of his legs was permanently shortened. He couldn’t get around like he wanted to. His greatest satisfaction came from hunting and fishing and his gimp leg made that difficult. He still could fish like it was in his blood – and it was – but everything else he loved went by the way side. My mom told me how he would take my dad out on the very big Ottawa river in a canoe near Mattawa and standing on the bank my grandmother and great grandmother would wave good bye with tears in their eyes. They did not expect them to come back. The river was treacherous.
But they came back and they came back with a boat load of sturgeon and high spirits. After the accident that life of freedom was all but forgotten. Now that he was living in Ohio and not in his beloved Canada my grandfather would drink and beat up my grandmother and his kids. What made him a nasty drunk? No one is still alive who remembers the reasons. Maybe it was his life that didn’t turn out the way he expected. Maybe he wanted to stay in the forests of western Ontario and fish and hunt and not worry about a thing. Maybe he resented being a dad. Maybe that’s just what most men of his time did.
I can only guess at what life was like for a young man of French descent in eastern Ontario and western Québec.
These two pictures suggest that they spent time smoking tobacco in pipes while sitting around the Franklin stove working on projects while keeping warm. I never knew my grandpa to be musical but here he sits with a lute in his hands. He seems to be playing. Was it a prop or did he really know?
Here’s a picture of my grandfather holding a little baby near the doorway of an Indian log cabin. It’s most likely these were Cree Indians as that was the predominate Indian tribe in western Québec and eastern Ontario. Why was he holding it? He seems satisfied. His face has a pleasant expression. The Indian man in the background just stares at the camera with no expression.
As I’ve said before my grandfather got in a bad accident while logging. Logging was a job a lot of young men had in the forests of eastern Canada. My grandfather was a little guy around 5 feet 8 inches tall so the horse looks big but wasn’t really all that big as horses go. Maybe a log slipped unexpectedly and pinned my grandpa down and broke his leg. That happened a lot. There weren’t any special doctors back then and whoever knew a little bit splinted this leg and hoped for the best. It healed up wrong and he was that way for the rest of his life.
Before that there was hunting and fishing and goofing around. It would have been an idyllic life for a young Canadian man. He got self sufficient and confidant. He knew how to do things. He could survive in the woods. He wasn’t a sissy. He was a man’s man. He got along with a certain type of man better than he got along with women. To us kids he was like a rock. We could depend on him and he was kind to our mother.
This is Part Three – as you can see – about my life growing up in Iowa. As I said in Part One and Two we grew up in a time where things were pretty peaceful. Our dads went to work and came home for lunch and in the evening went to work on the cars and trucks or in the garden. Our moms kept house and had long phone conversations with the other mothers and were there for us when we wanted. We kids spent the vast majority of our time outdoors. If the weather was halfway decent, which it usually was, and even if it wasn’t (read Hot and Humid) we found something to do. The only time we were indoors was if there was a thunderstorm, a tornado warning or just too friggin’ hot and humid. Then we would go to the library (did I say I love libraries?) and read, read, read! We had a gorgeous Carnegie Library in town.
The best thing about summer were the road trips. Mom and Dad packed us in the car and set off but not before they had a fight over how long my Mom took to get ready and then, of course, forgot something. My Dad just wanted to go and once he got going (because he did all the driving) he didn’t want to stop until he got wherever we were going. Bathroom break? What does not kill you makes you tougher.
Once we were on the road – because my mom found what she forgot – we all settled in for adventure and everybody was happy. Road trips were the best part of my childhood. I’ll say that now. When I was a kid my folks argued a lot and it made the house unpleasant to be in. Maybe that’s the biggest reason I spent so much time outdoors but on road trips they didn’t argue. They were having fun, too. Thank you!
We had a lot of different cars when I was growing up but the main vehicle I remember was a long Chevy station wagon. I can’t tell you what year or make. I can just say it was one of those classic kinds that were bigger than a football field in the back seat area. Mom would put down the back seat, lay blankets and a thin mattress there and we kids would hang out (no seat belts) and watch the world go by. (No video games. No TV. Are you kidding? Even no air conditioning. We are all wusses now.) Sometimes we rolled down the back window and threw out wadded up pieces of white bread just to watch it bounce away on the pavement. We were easily entertained. We also made up games to pass the time. For example we’d watch all the other cars to see what states they came from. We’d look for horses on the passing farms and ranches and play “I Get Those Horses” to see who could tally up the most animals observed before anyone else.
Montana, Yellowstone, the Black Hills. We also took a long trip to Los Angeles to visit my mom’s sister and her family. There was the ferocious thunderstorm outside Amarillo, Texas where the air crackled with lightening and ozone . After the storm passed my dad was bent on finding pinto beans. We stopped at a market in the dark and the pavement smelled like rain and my dad came out with the prize. The endless Kansas prairie was flat like the ocean. The red dirt of Oklahoma glowed in the sun. At the Petrified Forest in New Mexico we stopped and I found a horny toad lizard next to the car in the brush. Come, little horny toad. Hey, where are you going? Come back. I was 10.
Sometimes we went east to visit my dad’s mom and her husband Ephraim, also known as Ed. They lived in eastern Ohio and they had a giant two story rooming house with no roomers. They also had a huge empty barn where we spent hours exploring. In there we found abandoned implements from the farmer who had lived there before. Pigeons roosted in the rafters and flew down at the slightest provocation. It must have been a dairy barn because the upper level was a huge cathedral of empty space 3 stories high. This was where the hay was stored. The lower part had rows and rows of dusty, broken down milking aisles and feeding troughs. I never want to be a dairy farmer. Can you imagine getting up in the dark to milk 50 cows every morning and then do it all over again every night?
Gramma had a good size pond ringed with willow trees. The pond was full of aquatic weeds and in the weeds hid frogs of a shapes and sizes and also crawdaddies. We took Grammas’ row boat out to the middle and did our best to catch the frogs but they were too good for us. We never caught one. The crawdaddies were another story, though, because the nature of a crawdaddy is bad ass. Those little suckers will go mano a mano with you and your stick. They’ll grab on to it with their pincers and you hoist them into the air and then they let go and fall back in to the water. Woe to anyone who gets too close! Those little pincers hurt! And they won’t let go of you!
Sometimes we’d go to my mom’s mom in Illinois. She lived in a sleepy little eastern Illinois town and about all we had to do was swing on the porch swing. We cranked up that puppy like it was a playground swing. It’s a wonder it didn’t come loose! My Gramma also had what was called a “stereopticon” which showed “3D” versions of pictures when you looked through the viewfinder. Old Mrs. Roberts lived next to my grandmother. In between the two houses were a lot of black berry canes from back to back, side to side with a narrow path down the middle. Mrs. Roberts (Sadie) was about 150 years old and looked it. She was really skinny and the veins in her hands stood out in bas relief. Her sunken eyes were rimmed with dark circles. We kids were a little bit scared of her because she looked so cadaverous. Gramma would send us over to visit. We didn’t want to go but we were obedient children so go we went. Once we got there we quickly realized that she was nice as pie. When she started talking about her younger days we soon forgot our fear and enjoyed hearing her tell how she “bobbed” her hair against her mother’s wishes and ran off with the neighbor boy to the dance.
Out on my Uncle Louis and Aunt Leona’s farm we rode the pony through the corn rows to make him go faster and we jumped all over the steers in the pens like crazy things. We were in our element. Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” couldn’t have been more perfectly set. This was our version, too.
Back at home we went swimming at Riverview park every day. We ate Slo Pokes and ice cream bars and terrible stale popcorn from the snack bar. There didn’t seem to be fear of stomach cramps from swimming too soon after eating back then. Maybe life was cheaper. I tried going off the high dive board once and had enough of that immediately when my stomach went into my mouth. Not literally. It just felt that way. It wasn’t even that high of a dive board. I was a timid child.
After the hot humid day was nearly over we’d play Annie Over behind the house. Our stand alone garage was perfect. If we had a cloudburst we’d wait until it was over and go out to the street in front of our house where the storm drain couldn’t handle all the water and splash around in the flood and ride our bikes through it at high speed. If my dad was going fishing we’d go out after dark with our flashlights and try to pull those giant earthworms out of their holes. They were fast. You couldn’t contemplate. You just had to grab and try not to pull them in half (barbarians!)
Here are some highlights : old fashioned key skates that clamp on to your shoes, pickup sticks and jacks on the front porch, hop scotch in the driveway with tiny chains that don’t roll away like a rocks do, mashed potato-style dancing in Jamie’s basement, Fudgcicles, bomb pops, Slo Pokes on a stick, Neco Wafers, frozen Snickers bars, Milk Duds, candy cigarettes, corn bugs and potato salad.
I have an emblem of summer in Iowa that will be with me to the day I die. On my right forearm there’s a scar about 4 inches long (remember this when you’re identifying my dead body) I got his catching fireflies in our back yard. Years ago the farmers who lived on an acreage behind us (the Schultz’) had a real size farm. It had been much larger and when our subdivision was built our back yard was right where their garbage dump had been. So here I am, little child, running to catch a firefly and the next thing you know I’m tripping and coming up with a bloody arm. A broken glass jar was right where I fell. I still remember the trip to the emergency room and the doctor examining my arm. Mercifully I have forgotten the part where they sewed me up!
I would like to write more about finding river clams while canoeing on the Iowa river and fishing at Quarry or Nancy’s horse Tony but I’m running out of steam