Portraiture 101

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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.

It was Good so I Didn’t Mind.

1970: The Year of George and Sarah’s Power Wagon

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.

Dodge Power Wagon ready for action.

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.

From left: Dan, Will, dog, unknown, Baseball, Lynn, Chris and Gary

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.

A picture of me taken at Dan and Chris’s wedding.

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.

A French Canadian Hunter

A little story about my grandfather Edmund Benoit

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?

Handsome devil Edmund Benoit, my paternal grandfather.

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 Gentholtz

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.

My uncle Bob, Grandma Daisy and my dad Art.

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.

My grandpa Ed, my dad Art and my uncle Bob.

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.

An unknown friend, my great uncle Vic and my Grandpa Ed on the docks somewhere on the Ottawa River.

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.

Ed, on the right, staying warm.

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?

Ed playing a lute (maybe).

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.

My grandfather holding an Indian baby.

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.

My Grandfather astride a draft horse used for logging.

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.

Fish camp in Canada.
Goofing around. Is this the Winchester my dad gave to Nathaniel? A Winchester 1873 lever action.

Memories of a Childhood Outdoors – Summer

Part Three – Summer

Introduction

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 “brood” on the front steps with Dad.

Summer

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.

C’mon Mom!

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 Daisy had a sense of humor.

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

Summer in Iowa growing up was the absolute best.

Her Royal Highness

We Actually Wore That

Things are so different now I can’t even believe it.

Author’s Note: I’m taking a break from writing about my girlhood outdoors. I have plenty of material and it’s waiting in the wings for the right mood to strike. In the meantime I got inspired to reminisce about the clothes we gals wore when we were young. All you Millennials have not had to suffer this crap and I’m so glad. You have the hippies to thank.

Here’s the number one worst item of ladies apparel of all time. The worst I tell you! Perhaps it’s best forgotten but I want all you young girls to know what we older gals had to suffer.  The worst item by far was the “girdle”. The girdle was a contraption that held your nylon stockings up and your stomach in. Panty hose had not been invented yet and let me tell you panty hose were bad enough but still an improvement on the girdle. If your girdle was too tight, and it always was because that was the point, it screwed up your digestion. From time to time you would have horrible gut cramps because every once in a while you would have, let’s put it delicately, “fermentation”  in your gut. The girdle did not care about processing of fermentation. So there you sat. Churning and wincing because you couldn’t faint and you couldn’t escape.

Also the “latches” that held your nylon stockings would be a visible reminder that you had something under your skirt. How gauche! Sometimes they unlatched on their own as if by magic and your stocking would fall down. They invariably showed through your skirt. Two annoying little bumps that you had to sit on, too!. If you didn’t hike those latches up high enough you might even have the tops of your stocking became visible at the edge of your skirt when you sat down. Woe to those who tried to combine a girdle, nylon stockings and a miniskirt. Forget miniskirt! Better wear a gathered or pleated skirt that reached below your knees if you were going to wear a girdle with latches. Oh Girl!

Nylon stockings. I know we were screwed up by fashion because if you went bare legged you felt “wrong”. Like exposed or something. Bare legs just didn’t happen back then. And it was hard to stay neat and tidy because stockings were always getting “runners” in them. Right in the middle of something you would look down and see the tell tale sign creeping up your leg and wonder how did that happen. So you kept a bottle of clear nail polish in your purse to stop the runner from widening to grand canyon proportions until you could get somewhere to just change out of the darn things. You would spend hours shopping for stockings to replace ones that got messed up.

Then there was the “training bra”. Training? Training for what? Your boobies were so firm or nonexistent that they didn’t need any training. Maybe it was just physical propaganda to get the adolescent girl ready to toe the line in a man’s world. Hey girl, you have to start adjusting so let’s wrap some useless bunch of fabric around your flat chest and get you prepared!

Later on if you achieved any sort of “mass” in the chest area you were made to wear a bra that made your boobs look like weapons of pointy mass destruction. If you didn’t have enough “mass ” to fill them out you had to resort to toilet paper or tissue.

Just so you don’t start thinking that this is just a story about underwear let me tell you a story about high heels. My mom decided one year that I was not “cultured” or “lady-like” enough so she sent me off to the local “charm school” to be improved. Virginia Boyce’s Charm School. There we sat on Mrs. Boyce’s couch waiting to be transformed into perfect little ladies. Mrs. Boyce told us “If your husband walks too fast when you’re wearing high heels just walk slower. He will have to slow down for you.” Thus began the insidious passive aggression and inability to speak out for what you need. Then she had us practice walking in high heels. I think this is where I got my lifelong fear of ankle sprains. While you were trying not to break your ankle you had to make sure you were walking properly. Well, maybe the more appropriate term would be “gliding”. We were not allowed to “bob”. We were to watch the horizon and if it went up and down we were deficient mules lacking all social graces. A few years later I was told by my boyfriend that I didn’t have any movement in my walk. Well, why the heck not and what’s wrong with that anyway? I am gliding, dude. Can’t you see that? What’s the matter with you?

Easter was a time of dread and high anticipation. Mom made it a gigantic production. There was the shopping and the new shoes that pinched and caused blisters. There was the stupid hat that we never wore ever again, the lace trimmed socks and teeny little handbag (to hold what?). Then there was the packing into the car for the Big Event (church) during which we squirmed and complained and mom kept socking us and telling us to be quiet. I couldn’t wait to get home and rip off those clothes and get back into my dungarees and t shirt. The shoes were patent leather that we “shined” with Vaseline. Sometimes Mom made us wear pointless little gloves that never stayed clean. Don’t touch anything Mom exclaims! There we sit like little stone sphinxes staring straight ahead until someone breaks a grin and we all start pushing on each other and laughing. I’m glad I was a kid in those days. Mom had it rough.

Gone and but not forgotten Hall of Fame: Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini. Topless bathing suit by Rudi Gernrich. Sack Dress. Go-go boots. Nehru jacket. Beatles boots. Empire dresses. Baby doll dresses. Culottes. Bobbie Brooks. Shift dresses.

As soon as the hippie years commenced off came the bras and the girdles, here came the afros, raggedy bell bottom jeans, crocheted tops, second hand store wool navy trousers with the two rows of buttons at the top. My favorite coat was a double breasted black salvation army captains coat. It looked good with the jeans and my long hair cascading down my back.

Spring: Memories of a Childhood Outdoors

Introduction

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

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.

 

Part One – Memories of a Childhood Outdoors

Introduction

I am tempted to call this story Days of Heaven because growing up in Iowa in the 50s was pretty wonderful. Our dads went to work and came back home for lunch and went out in the evening to work on our cars 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. When we weren’t in school (for that’s another story) we spent all our time outdoors. Oh, there were the early morning Saturday cartoons when we were older and finally got a television. Cartoons started at 7 am and ended after breakfast and then it was up and out 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 was if there was a thunderstorm and a tornado warning or coming in 50 miles an hour sideways in a blizzard.

Winter

Sometime we had a blizzard and when it stopped we would pile in the car and go sledding at the Country Club golf course. We had sleds and inner tubes and sometimes one family would bring a toboggan. The snow in Iowa was perfect for sledding. The first time I went skiing at Lake Tahoe I thought “let’s go sledding” because I was used to Iowa conditions. That thought was promptly squashed when we realized that the Sierra snow was too deep and all you did was sink. Not going anywhere on a sled, you weren’t! But in Iowa it was gravy. I mean it was perfect snow. Only about 3 or 4 inches deep and, boy, you could go fast! We kids would be airborne most of the time on those long slopes. A little bump and whoo-wee up you’d go sled or inner tube and all if you were holding on. If you weren’t you were ejected and flying on your own. I wish I had a photograph of the entire scene. It would have looked like a Courier and Ives postcard.

Our Weimaraner dog Heidi (in silhouette), my sister, my mom and me.

From our house on Fifteenth Avenue you went down Nevada Street to there was a little grocery store called Twin Foods.  They sold milk and bread and a few other things. They had a real bakery in the back where they made the most scrumptious white sandwich bread, crusty crust and soft, chewy insides. In the winter the owner had the brilliant idea to take his tractor and scoop out a shallow depression that he then filled with water to freeze and make a kind of ice skating rink.  Then with our classic white figure skates we girls would tentatively swoosh around. The boys would swoosh around on hockey skates because no self-respecting boy would be caught dead in figure skates.   Sometimes we would go over to the bottom land on North Center Street where water went over the bank of the Iowa River, gathered in large tracts and then froze. We would skate there, too, but it was not very smooth ice so I never got very good at skating. I mostly got good at not falling.

My dad holding the buck. Howard Stegman holding proof of the recurve bow. They fletched their own arrows, too.

My dad was a hunter. He hunted all manner of wild animals. He hunted squirrels, pheasant, ducks, and rabbits. He even went to Canada once and bagged a moose. We were eating moose for a year. But deer were the most prized animals. He and his friends hunted deer with the classic recurve bow. Compound bows did not exist at that time. Al Polley was a farmer out north of town and he had corn fields and timber that bordered the north side of the Iowa River. He gave my dad and his friends permission to hunt there. To keep warm while they were hunting my dad and his friends built a plywood one room shack that they called the deer shack. Like I said they used it to warm up in. They needed this because how you hunted deer with a recurve bow was to make a little platform high up in a tree next to a trail that the deer used habitually. The hunters would sit for hours in the tree waiting for the deer to come along. But the deer didn’t come like clockwork so when our dads got cold they would climb down and get in the deer shack to warm up. Some snowy winter evenings we would take a big pot of chili out there and build a big fire and then stand around the fire and eat the chili with crackers. Later on I would go with my dad in the dark to scout for deer sign while the others stayed behind. I guess it had to be in the dark so as not to spook the deer so much. Dad never explained much of anything. But it made me fearless of the dark.

Other winter evenings we would go out in the car just after dark and drive into the corn field stubble and circle the car around so the headlights would illuminate the perimeter of the field. If we were lucky we would see a deer herd feeding on the corn stubble. Their heads would pop up and we’d see their shiny eyes. Such beauty. My dad hardly ever hit a deer with his bow and arrow. I think maybe he hit one or two in all the years I was growing up. It’s hard to hold a recurve long enough to get the perfect shot and the deer would not come into the perfect position. Tree branches could be in the way. The dads practiced all summer at the Isaac Walton League so they would be as ready as they would ever be when deer season came.

Next: Part Two – Spring