June 15, 2005

School chairs not only ones in which we learn

Tom Savage, my barber, died a year ago this week. Cancer got the better of him.

Tom wasn't my barber for very long, only about a year-and-a-half, but I saw pictures of his cabin ravaged by a summer windstorm and then pictures of it rebuilt. We discussed county politics, exchanged the details of family histories and vacations. It may not sound like much, but my disappointment that he won't cut my hair again is a testament to the unspoken bond that develops between a man and his barber.

Indeed, after I discovered Tom no longer was in business, I procrastinated on getting a haircut for three weeks. My wife finally dragged me into one of those new fast-food hairstylist chains. You know the place, one where the unnatural sharpness of florescent light bears upon you as a girl barely out of her teens (or a middle-aged woman wishing she were in her teens) bounces around with a scissors to the beat of some technopop dance track, a song made with synthesizers instead of actual musical instruments.

The stylists' talk of pregnancy and who is the cutest guy on the soaps wasn't inherently wrong in itself, but for me it was an alien world. I might as well have plopped down on Venus without a spacesuit; the place was suffocating.

For you see, like Samson, a man cannot let just anyone cut his hair.

Part of a boy's education about what it means to be a man comes when sitting in a barber's chair. A wise man knows that through adulthood a part of him always remains a boy; the monthly visit to one's barber is like checking the compass to make sure you're still on course.

• • •

My first barber, Jim, didn't much like me. I was only two and couldn't sit still in the chair. One warm summer night, when the men stepped outside for a reprieve to en-joy the sunset, I remained in the chair, the sheet draped over me pinching tight at the neck.

Growing bored, I began spinning around in the barber's chair as fast as I could just to see how much speed might be built up and to discover how much time would pass before I got dizzy. The men came in while was doing this, and I was scolded thoroughly.

Every visit after that, though, Jim always gave me three or four quick spins around the chair if I sat still while he cut my hair.

When I was six, my parents moved. Like a dog passed on to a new owner, my dad needed a while to take to Herb, our new barber. One month, Dad and I even trekked back to Jim's for a haircut.

But Herb remained my barber for nearly 12 years. And in his shop, as I waited for him to finish the haircuts of my dad and the other men, I first learned of newspapers. Though Herb's magazine stack contained the previous year's issues of outdoors magazines and a tattered copy of "Tom Sawyer," he always had that day's metro paper on hand.

Through that paper, I discovered there was a greater world out there than the small farm and village that was my home. The outside world, I also learned, was one full of deceit and violence. Yet, as I read of astronauts who might die in space, of a president lying to us and of boys not much younger than my father dying in a distant jungle, I always could look up and amid the warmth of Herb's water radiator, the heavy scent of Brylcreem and the men's talk of family and friends feel comforted.

• • •

My next barber, Norb, is my favorite of them all. Perhaps that's because he was my barber during college, those uncertain years when a boy breaks from the tether of his parents. Amid the headiness of new, fantastic opportunities that a boy realizes, accepting the responsibilities of career, wife and family is more frightening yet as essential to his existence than anything he's faced before.

Norb always was fond of telling how he cut the hair of both John F. and Robert Kennedy. While each Kenn-edy ran for president in 1960 and 1968, they stopped in my college town of River Falls, Wis., for a rally. John entered Norb's shop mainly for the photo op. But when Norb was done with him in the chair, John announced it was the best haircut he'd ever received.

When John left the shop, a secret service man told Norb that the senator had never said that before to any barber.

John must have meant it. Eight years later, when Robert was in town, he stopped into Norb's shop and told him his older brother, John, had recommended him for a haircut.

That's quite a tribute to Norb in more ways than one. Norb, you see, was an officer in the county Republican Party.

• • •

Norb also liked to tell allegories. More than once I read between the lines and used his advice. The one time I didn't follow it, though, I broke up with a girl I'd been dating for a year-and-a-half.

After I got my first job, I'd still drive past 30 miles of cornfields once a month just to have Norb cut my hair. And, even though I lived in such far off places as New Mexico, whenever traveling home to visit my parents I'd be sure to block out time to get to River Falls, just to have Norb cut my hair.

Norb is retired these days. Herb died about eight years ago of cancer. Jim passed away from the earth before I'd even entered adulthood. I bid them, and Tom Savage, all adieu.

And in the meantime, like many of Tom's former customers, I'll be letting my hair grow a little longer for awhile.

(originally published June 15, 2003)

June 13, 2005

Getting your knees in the dirt for strawberry picking yields more than brimming pail

June offers a great treasure for those feeling disconnected in our asphalt-laden, electronicized world: berry picking. There is nothing quite like getting your knees into the dirt and picking strawberries yourself.

All begins well; you've turned picking into a family event, which your grandparents view as a nostalgic excursion and readily join. The day you select is a perfect June morning of clear blue skies and a gentle breeze. Ice cream pails swing in your hands.

Long rows of plants full of bright berries greet you. Kneeling at the first plant, the plump and fleshy strawberries, all of the most vibrant red you've ever seen, surprise you. You can't help but eat the first dozen berries picked.

But the knees soon strain as you pick in silence. The sun burns your bare arms and neck (now you understand why your grandparents wore long-sleeve shirts and hats despite the heat), and your back brims with pain.

About this time, you start appreciating that modern technology can bring berries from Mexico to anywhere on the globe any time of the year. But this is cheaper than the grocery store, you tell yourself. More important, the supermarket won't let you eat the pickings.

So you go back to work, and as the pail fills, the soreness in your back becomes oddly bearable. The sun rises higher in the sky; bluebirds fly overhead. You're thinking strawberry shortcake tonight.

The pail fills, and you turn back. You can't believe how much field you've covered, that you've been picking this long, that your fingers are so stained from berry juice.

Joining you, your grandparents break into a friendly argument over which is better, freezer jam or cooked preserves; Grandpa argues for jam's fresh taste, Grandma for preserves' low sugar content. Privately, you've got to side with your grandfather on this one.

And then you smile. Raspberries come in July.

(originally published June 13, 2004)

June 12, 2005

Finding moral roots in a strawberry patch

U-pick berry operations are on the decline as people increasingly shift away from their agricultural past. It's much more convenient to buy some little wooden baskets or cardboard crates of berries already plucked by someone else.

For convenience and even Midwestern thrift, I do that myself. But every June in those days when I was growing up on the farm, my neighbor Bill Bertram would go pick his own strawberries.

I couldn't understand why. But then the other day as hiking along a lush river, I found a rare wild strawberry plant, its fruit as red and fat as a thumb that's been hit by a hammer and weighing heavy on the bush. As the heat of sun warmed my cheek, I delicately turned the fruit over in my hand and started thinking of it plopped atop shortcake or ice cream, crushed into jam spread across toast and stuffed with dozens of others in a warm pie. Had I a little sugar to sprinkle atop the berry, I might very well have plucked and eaten it.


Finding a wild strawberry is whole different matter from working your way through a patch in the blazing sun and humidity, though. Even Bill said getting to the patch during the early morning, when the air remained cool and the sun hadn't fully ascended in the east, was best.

Still, he usually got a child-like glimmer in his eyes whenever talking of strawberry picking, as if somehow getting in the dirt again was like regaining his innocence. No, it wasn't his innocence so much as his sense of wonder and discovery, which also runs deep in our human roots.

After all, we need to question and experiment to survive.


One of the great discoveries of those growing strawberries in Iowa is that our berries tend to be sweeter than those from the West or South. Blame it on our extremes in temperatures. Strawberries prefer moderate temps that don't hover far from the 60s.

Our extremes also make for better berry picking. Some u-pick operations spread corn stalks and mulch around the plants to survive winter, which in summer keep our shoes from sinking into the wet dirt.

Plucking strawberries, like staying on the straight and narrow, is no easy task, Bill always said, but it's worth it.


So many of our morals and values derive from agricultural societies that existed for millennia. Some ponder why modern man has turned his back on those beliefs.

I'd suggest it's not the devil's work but a cultural shift. Not so long ago, most Americans and Europeans worked on farms; these days, farmers are a small minority of the population.

So what happens when we turn from the soil and the barn to the asphalt and the office? What happens when our hands do not raise and can the food we consume but instead labor in other endeavors so that we don't know how milk comes to be in a plastic jug or peas in a tin can? Can the phrase "milk and honey" mean as much when one never has to worry about its availability?

This weekend, I'm heading to a strawberry patch to find out.

(originally published June 12, 2005)

June 08, 2005

Brothers, truth, community pride and your courthouse

His chest tightening, my brother gaped at the county courthouse as we drove past. "That's where they take you, when you've been bad, and decide how long you'll stay in prison," I whispered to him. He was five and I just old enough to know enjoying seeing him afraid was wrong.

He gulped. "What kind of bad things?"

"Stealing, fighting, killing others." A team of sheriff's deputies escorted a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, shackles and handcuffs toward the courthouse. "Say, didn't you steal a couple of cookies last night even though mom told you to stay out of them?"

His eyes widened. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"

I nudged his side with my elbow. "Don't worry - I'd never do anything mean like that. Not to my brother."

• • •

The county courthouse we passed was not unlike those found across Iowa or any other Midwestern state: At the center of a town square, fronted by a flagpole and statue of a Civil War hero, the building of neoclassical design with tower in the center and columns at the front.

Entering the courthouse usually meant taking a stairs to reach the "first floor." Inside, you'd find murals and mosaic tiles and a rotunda.

That courthouses - such stodgy designs by today's standards - were built to be imposing was no accident. They signaled the power of law and of government by the people. The records they held were marks of the truth, committed to paper for all eternity. A courthouse was the community's pride.

Most Iowa counties have built three generations of courthouses. Johnson County is no different. Our earliest pioneers constructed Iowa City's first courthouse two-stories high and out of brick; it burned to the ground in 1856. The county erected a brick replacement the following year, but it was condemned in 1899. James Rowson and Son assembled the existing courthouse for $135,000; a dedication ceremony, featuring bands, balloons and a parade, was held 102 years ago today for it.

• • •

Courthouses were so important to a community's self-worth that brother often fought brother for the right to locate it in a town.

Consider Hardin County. In 1853, the village of Eldora was named county seat. But the neighboring town of Steamboat Rock thought the courthouse should be placed within its borders and forced a countywide vote on the matter. Steamboat Rock lost.

The next year, the village of Berlin also got a countywide vote to move the courthouse there. Berlin lost, too.

But the third time is a charm. When Point Pleasant challenged for courthouse bragging rights in a countywide election the very next year, it won.

After the votes were counted, sealed and delivered to the county courthouse, however, someone broke in and destroyed the ballots. Point Pleasant blamed Eldora residents for trying to usurp the election; Eldora blamed Point Pleasant residents for getting rid of evidence that proved the election had been fixed.

Ten years later, the battle of where to locate the county seat was decided, appropriately enough, in a courthouse. The Iowa Supreme Court named Eldora the winner.

It did not end there, though. Iowa Falls soon offered the county government $32,000 towards a new courthouse if it were built in that village. Eldora residents quickly launched a fund-raising drive and countered with $40,000.

And like so many other decisions in American courthouses, money finally settled the matter. Eldora remains Hardin County's county seat to this day.

• • •

Other communities took a more direct approach in moving their county seat.

When the Sioux County village of Orange City wanted the courthouse but the town of Calliope would not give it up, things got ugly. On Jan. 22, 1872, about 80 bobsleds from Orange City and another town descended upon Calliope. The raiders cut a hole in the log courthouse and hauled the 5,000-pound safe containing all of the county records to Orange City.

An election that November rubber-stamped the heist's results. But Orange City didn't build a courthouse until 30 years later.

• • •

My brother and I first entered a courthouse while on a field trip. We went to a small, rural school; when grades 1-6 got on the bus, there still were empty seats.

He was petrified of going, pondered feigning sickness the day of the trip.

"Don't worry," I told him as we lay in our beds the night before, "they're going to see how long other people who did bad things will go to prison. We're just there to see how it works. They won't know that you're the one who hit the baseball through the living room window."

"Yes," he said sotto voce, "but what if somebody tells them them while we're there?"

• • •

For proof that Big Brother can't happen in America, all one has to do is walk into a courthouse. Presuming understaffed clerks and secretaries had the time, they'd have a difficult go finding a record in the overstuffed storage rooms. Land, marriage, probate and criminal files represent decades of paperwork.

Indeed, courthouse records frequently pose nightmares for genealogists. In the 1800s, courthouse fires often resulted in the loss of records. Sometimes rodents made a mess of now browning paper.

To create a sense of permanence and stability, communities by the early 1900s constructed soaring courthouses out of marble, granite or limestone. Image was important. But such buildings were difficult to heat and suffered awful acoustics. Adding on to them as counties grew often resulted in odd and ugly constructs.

And some counties, desperately needing more space but seeking to save money, built charmless, modern facilities looking more like a hastily constructed community college than symbols of strength. Placed at the edges of town, the only things Iowan about them are the flag out front and the surrounding cornfield.

But we're a mobile society. We don't have time for bobsleds lugging 5,000-pound safes on Interstates 80 or 35. In fact, you can go to prison for doing so.

• • •

When my brother and I got home that evening from the field trip, he whapped me with his book bag.

"What'd you do that for?" I growled.

"You lied to me! The lady at the courthouse said they don't put little kids who take cookies or accidentally break windows into prison!"

And hence the value of the courthouse reared itself once again: With the truth comes power.

(originally published June 8, 2003)

June 06, 2005

A thing of beauty graces the skies: Our place in this universe

We've lost something by not having to rise at the crack of dawn to get a head start on the farm chores. We no longer witness the sky's slow shift from indigo to blue as the rising sun lifts night's shadows from the Earth.

On Tuesday, though, many will rediscover dawn's grace as they wake early to watch a rare event: the transit of Venus.

It's been 122 years since the morning star crossed the mighty sun, certainly a once in a lifetime event. Fortun-ately, if grey conceals the heavens, we'll get another chance in 2012. Miss that one, though, and we'll have to wait until the 22nd century.

Iowans will be able to see the last 20 minutes or so of Tueday's transit. Once the entire sun ascends the horizon, look for a tiny black dot upon its lower quarter. Be sure to don welder's glasses.


As the third brightest object in the sky, humanity long has worshiped and been fooled by Venus. The ancient Romans considered her the goddess of love and beauty, adopting many of the Greek myths of Aphrodite.

Venus is a mysterious world thanks to its thick cloud cover, which accounts for her brightness by reflecting a great amount of sunlight. Some thought she might be tropical. Not until the last quarter century did we really understand what she looked like. Despite her allure, she is a hellish world of intense heat and acid rain.

Venus, more correctly, is love gone bad.


The transit ought to re-mind us of our place in the universe. Though Venus will be but a speck upon the sun, its nearness to Earth actually makes the planet appear 30 times larger than it really is compared to our star.

And Venus is Earth's virtual twin in size.

(originally published June 6, 2004)

June 05, 2005

Lessons in building a load/mow of hay

By about this time of the year, those farmers who still grow alfalfa have cut their "first crop" of hay.

Learning how to build a load of hay used to be an important lesson in many young boys' lives. As a loader passed over a windrow of cut alfalfa, you'd use a fork to pile up the hay from one end of the wagon to the other then go back and forth over and over again until no more could be piled on. Knowing how to keep a level pile and how to fork the hay to ease the lifting were vital. So was the patience and tenacity to do it in the heat.

It's why corn is a lot more preferable to harvest.

I was born too late for that, though the lessons my dad learned when working the fields with horse and fork were translated to the modern reaping of hay. Though he says I came up with the idea (I always correct him - he taught me), stacking in a hay mow required alternating the bales so for one line the short sides pointed one way then in the next row the other; after laying on level, you'd start on the next, lining the bales in the opposite direction so they interlocked and wouldn't fall on you later.

To have sturdiness later, you've got to spend most of your time on the underlying structure. It's a lost lesson.

(originally published June 5, 2005)

June 01, 2005

What objects would you want to be remembered by?

If you could choose just five objects to be remembered by, what would they be?

The question is hardly trivial. Indeed, it's one that many people down the ages have pondered.

After all, the objects with which we surround ourselves tell much about our lives. Since they will outlast us, they may be the best shot at immortality we have.

• • •

An old friend conducting genealogical research recently discovered a photograph of my great-great-great-great grandmother. The photo intrigued me not just because it was the first picture I'd ever seen of Nancy Place but also for the few objects she chose to have set around her.

At her feet is an Irish setter. To her side are two porch chairs, used by her husband and she. To another side is a rocking chair, apparently pulled from the house behind her. Then there is an axe and a hoe, her husband's implements.

The objects form a sort of still life in which she is at the center.

I do not know of any tales about her setter, what she and my great-great-great-great grandfather talked about (if they talked at all) while sitting on those rocking chairs, have no idea what vegetables he took the greatest pleasure in raising. For that, I am the poorer.

But I do know much about what guided them through their days together.

• • •

The picture reminds me of an old painting by the Dutch master Jan Van Eyck, "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami." The painting serves as a wedding portrait of the Italian merchant and his bride, but unlike today's photographs of such events that show only smiling, perfectly groomed faces, it surrounds the couple with several symbolic objects: a carpet and slippers, a rosary on the wall, a little brush beside the bed, fruit on the window sill.

It is as if we are paying a visit to the Arnolfini home.

We learn much about the Arnolfinis through these objects. The fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility and the Renaissance belief in man's fall from Paradise. Discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage. Another symbol is St. Margaret, the patron saint of women in childbirth, whose image is carved on a chair back.

Art long has been a way to preserve a bit of our beliefs and personal stories. The pharaohs inside their tombs included elaborate paintings that told of their exploits. Archeologists use them today to create an outline of what life was like thousands of years ago.

• • •

Even today, high school seniors often select a prop that hints at their unique personalities: a basketball for the athlete, a musical instrument for the band student, a hat for the bohemian. Years later, a quick glance at the photograph shows classmates something far more than a youthful face.

Those who understand the power of image and what it connotes are keen to surround themselves or their clients with the appropriate prop and scenery.

Should there be any surprise that during the last presidential election George W. Bush and Al Gore wore virtually the same colored suit, always over a crisp white shirt, brightened only by either a power red or a federal blue tie? Or that those stumping for the new Homeland Security Department did so with an American flag or pictures of firefighters and police officers behind them?

In the age of television and the 15-second sound bite, becoming cynical about such iconography is easy enough.

Yet, we should not fault the image-maker any more than those who respond to such images.

After all, if we were not moved in some way by the pictures of saluting children and amber waves of grain, the image would not have been used.

Self-awareness of what evokes emotion and passion in us may be just as important as the ability to reason through an argument.

• • •

What five objects would you chose to be remembered by?

Most of us make such decisions subconsciously, I suspect.

A columnist from Sioux Rapids recently sent a family snapshot so her photo could run with the op-ed. It showed her, her husband and their two children sitting on a picnic table in a verdant backyard, cornfield and big sky behind them. Her husband, an army reservist, wore his military fatigues. One of the children had the logo of a recent NFL playoff team on his shirt.

It was just a snapshot, a quick family portrait taken with a Polaroid.

Or was it?

• • •

Gazing upon the grainy picture of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, I try to imagine what message she left for me from decades ago.

Was the dog a sign that friendship and loyalty were respected? Is the pair of porch chairs a symbol of fidelity and companionship that comes with marriage? Does the axe and hoe represent their constant struggle with nature to survive? Or perhaps they show the tools one needed to find a balance with nature in order to survive.

And passing the framed pictures of family in my hallway, I wonder what clues to my life and our times those images may hold for my great-great-great-great granddaughter.

I only can hope they offer the right lessons of life, should she choose to look for them.

(originally published June 1, 2003)

May 30, 2005

Victorians mean more than wealth

Though built as a sign of opulence, today a Victorian house stands for something far more significant. Indeed, true Victorians were raised more than a century ago, and that they still stand at all says much.

Most of us associate such homes with San Francisco, but they were built all across Iowa and the Midwest as well. Our cities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers - Keokuk and Council Bluffs most notably come to mind - are dotted with these grand old dames. But they're even here in Iowa City and out in land-locked Fairfield.

These days, lovers of Victorians spend years re-storing them, convert them into beds and breakfasts so the rest of us may indulge ourselves for a night, and seek national historic registry to prevent them from ever being demolished. These efforts arise from a love for those ornate homes with their elaborate floor designs, so different from the simple farmhouses and ranches in which many of us grew up. The whimsical coloring of a Victorian's exterior balances its interior elegance.

Why, calling a Victorian home is like living in a full-scale dollhouse.


What is most remarkable about a Victorian home is its bulwark quality. Oftentimes the mansard tower rises like a castle turret. The walls, often made of redwood, mahogany or the finest oak, remain sturdy.

For frontier Iowa's pioneers, who would patch together a quick shelter out of sod and rough-hewn wood, then a year or two later, once they'd earned a little from their first harvest, would buy lumber and build a slightly more permanent structure, a Victorian must have meant more than wealth, however.

It was a statement against the very forces of nature that caused their log homes to lean, their unshingled cabins to leak, the boards placed across dirt floors to buckle.

Just as a family's plow would split open the earth and force it to bear fruits so they might survive in the continental wilderness, so a Victorian with its foundation permanently planted in the soil signified a mighty great of the elements.


Not too far from the farm where I grew up, a couple of sections away and out near the railroad tracks stood a Victorian house, built back in the 1870s by the son of Mathias Sutherland, our township's first white settler.

For all those years, the stalwart Victorian remained horridly vulnerable amid the unending sky and summer corn. Whenever seeing it, my hair bristled at the thought that it had endured for all those years without a twister's banshee roar toppling it. Sometimes as the school bus paused at the tracks, I'd ponder if perhaps its time was near.

In the late afternoon glow, cold, purple shadows fell across the side of the house askance from the sunlight as the other remained bathed in warmth. It ironically had outlasted even the name of the man who built it. Then the bus would bump over the tracks, passing the old dame, its glass windows steely with shadow and light.

The house still stands to this day.


Victorians came in a variety of styles - Federal, Greek, Gothic and Italianate houses were common in the 1850s. Second Empire, Eastlake, Queen Anne and Neo-Classical styles were popular from the end of the Civil War until the early 1900s.

Often, as is typical of us country bumpkin Americans, we mixed styles, preferring to assert our individualism through preferences and tastes to some pre-ordained sense of aesthetics established by the elites.

Like those pioneers who broke new ground despite the scourge of grasshopper, blizzard and dust storm, that stubborn refusal to yield manifested itself in the very structures that some chose to live.

It is ironic that such homes today are associated with being priggish, prim and even prissy.

(originallypublished May 30, 2004)

May 29, 2005

Spend a few hours staring at the sky

The days finally have grown warm enough to gaze for long hours at the sky. Of course, there are amateur astronomers who brave any weather to locate a specific star or galaxy for those few short hours it is visible on a January night, and sometimes I have been among them. But there is a grander and ironically more personal perspective that one gains by taking in the whole sky as it covers the Earth.

Often during childhood we've reclined on a slope and as staring at the clouds above, pondering such questions as what are clouds made of, why do they float and why is the sky blue. Science now offers such answers. Yet, even in adulthood, resting upon a knoll still can raise our sense of wonder.

Here on the Great Plains, we have an added advantage. There are no mountains as out West or high hills like in the East to block our vista. When we gaze upward, the great enormousness of the sky surrounds us, making the stretches of corn hugging the good earth miniscule in comparison.


I recommend resting on a knoll during the early morning hours, when the stars still puncture the black sky with light and the moon reigns great and noble over it all. Though right before our eyes, stars remain elusive, out of hand's reach. Even if we could magically grab one, it might not be there. The brightest star, Sirius, is so far away that its light takes 8.5 years to reach us; what we see low on the horizon is how the star looked in 1996. And Sirius is among the closer stars.

Eventually, the stars begin to fade. They're still present; the earth just has turned far enough that our side of the world begins to face the sun. Its glare, every second equal in energy to a year's output of every one of our largest power plants, washes this small planet in ambient light; amid it, we could no more see the stars than we might a firefly in front of a searchlight.

Slowly, as our small section of the world comes to fully face the sun, a red then orange glow covers the horizon. Dawn spreads over the homes of men.

A blend of notes fills the morning sky as life awakens. The smell, too, of the world changes while the dew evaporates.

As the sun rises, burning the hillside, the breeze grows warmer. Life begins to quiet as the heat slows our muscles and the young ones have been fed. We can hear our breathing again.


Fair warning: There are those who will say you have wasted time reclining upon that knoll. Such people often are more concerned with money and other man-made fabrications that quantify existence, like a child madly insistent upon naming all objects. How can staring at the sky be measured with green bills in a wallet, electronic blips on a computer screen or pencil marks in a ledger?

Such people spend too much time looking in the wrong direction. As Rachel Carson wrote, "It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility."


Of course, one cannot contemplate forever. It's best to rise once the sun ascends fully into the sky.

Before doing so, look to the ground beside your head, though. There may be an ant looking up at you from its tiny mound.

Perhaps it has been sitting there all morning, too.

(originally published May 29, 2005)

May 25, 2005

Planting values, character in the next generation

Every April, my father with the heel of his workboot dug at the black soil around a cut cornstalk. Kneeling, he'd scoop the upturned dirt into a hand, examine it.

As he opened his palm, the dirt sifted across the air like a swarm of gnats falling to earth. "It's almost ready," he said, "maybe a week off."

Only seven years old, I stared blankly at him.

He motioned for me to come down to his level. "Go ahead, pick up a handful," he said. "Roll it around in your fingers, feel its texture. And remember it. Next week we'll check it again, and you'll see how different the soil is."

And he was right - a week later it was drier yet more pungent. That morning, my father hooked up the plow and started another season of planting.

• • •

Such a scene has been repeated between father and son for thousands of years before it happened to me. The crops were different but feeling the dirt in one's hands always was a necessity for people. It meant the difference between starvation and a bountiful harvest, between boyhood and being a man.

Farmers sometimes relied on other methods to tell when they should plant: a river's depth, the stars' position, an almanac's forecast. In Iowa, farmers waited for the return of golden plover before planting; the hardy little songbird flies 20,000 miles roundtrip from sub-Arctic Canada to Argentina then back again, stopping to rest in Iowa roughly the last week of April.

But that's not always the perfect predictor. As occurred this year in Iowa, rain can turn fields into bogs, delaying planting.

And the later planting comes, the more the anxiety. It means lower yields, a greater chance of crop loss from wind or late summer drought. A late harvest raises the other bookend of threats, such as an early freeze.

But rarely does a farmer ever see a perfect season; it's almost always too wet or too dry somewhere along the way. The moral: Take it day by day, week by week.

• • •

Iowa's earliest farmers planted these crops by hand. They "broadcast" or scattered their seed in the air as walking across the field. It wasn't until the 1870s that quality mechanized planters came to Iowa.

That resulted in surplus crops of wheat, barley, oats and rye. Then in the early 1900s, Iowan scientist Henry A. Wallace developed a variety of hybrid corn. His crop was perfect for the landscape and transformed it.

Raising corn was quite different from raising wheat. Corn had to be planted later in spring and harvested later in fall. It required a new feel for the soil.

Corn also grew best in perfectly aligned rows. Staying on the "straight and narrow" became a matter of pride for farmers.

• • •

Before the days of modern farm machinery, boys learned to plow, plant and harvest when quite young. From a father's point of view, there was no better way to teach his son how to set goals and the value of working hard to reach them.

Such character traits as strict morality with a just sense of obedience, social and public duty gave a man direction to live by. And as with any successful spiritual or political movement, it promised reward for such labor and self-discipline.

Indeed, as the fictional farmer-hero Jurnjakob Swehn says in the 19th century book "Letters of a German American Farmer": "My dear friend ... you see how it all came true for a kid off the sandy land of Hornkaten in Mecklenburg who dreamed of having two herds of cows as he moved out into foreign parts. Now we have plenty of everything, plenty of land and livestock.

"And it all cost plenty of sweat."

• • •

As the number of people growing up on farms declines, such values are not easy to instill in youth. Until a boy experiences the joy of keeping a straight line or knows that life depends on sensing the minute ways dirt can feel in his hands, how could he understand the value of a strict morality?

Yearning for some type of truth, many now turn back to the earth, but not as a farmer does. Instead, they herald nature in its original condition.

Iowa's farmers and their urban descendants were quite thorough in overturning the state's original prairie. Less than 0.1 percent of tallgrass stands remain.

Some of it exists in pioneer cemeteries. The state's first farmers typically picked plots of purple and yellow wildflowers with green grass and flashes of white mint for their final resting places.

There is a certain irony that almost all that remains of the prairie holds the bones of the very people who broke the wide plains into wheat then corn fields.

• • •

These days my father no longer farms, and my livelihood depends upon computer chips and the electronic flow of information.

But every once in a while when taking a walk, I like to kick at the dirt with my foot and scoop up a handful of it, just to see if it's ready for planting.

(originally published May 25, 2003)

May 23, 2005

Recalling where we came from

This decade, Iowa technically became more "urban" than "rural." Though the farms have grown fewer and larger, the state at its heart is grange country. And they hardly anymore are the fabled pictures of a red barn, running windmill and a dozen different breeds of animals so often shown in children's books.

There is one constant: Since the first day Adam was condemned to toil the red earth, life on a farm has consisted of extremes. Summers grow so hot that a man's body seems to melt as working while winter numbs exposed skin within seconds. And a few, brief weeks between those seasons often are most vital to success: The soil must be neither too moist nor too dry in spring, and the crop can be neither undergrown nor too ripe in autumn. To the urban passerby who sees a field of ripe corn swaying in the breeze or the farmer's wife lugging a basket of strawberries into the house for hulling, the troubles of those who till the land are well masked.

Ironically, as we migrate to our concrete form of Eden a new extreme is created: modern man's disconnection from the Earth and correspondingly the fount of ideas from which we struggle to make choices today.

(originally published May 23, 2004)

May 22, 2005

Deciding against preemptive strike on discovered snake

While hiking along the Iowa River the other day, I decided to cut through grass in need of mowing. The trail formed a U, with the bottom curve washed out.

I only got halfway through the grass when I froze.

A snake, a light stripe running down its brown back, lay half curled like a scythe. I hadn't heard it slithering my way, but as we stared at one another, its whispered "Sssss!" sounded like a thunderclap.

We each stood our ground, a foot apart from the other, it unwilling to take on a creature as large as me, I unwilling to gamble against its speed and neither of us willing to turn our backs on the other.

My heart pounded loud enough that I couldn't hear the wind blowing the grass tops in great swells. The heat of the sun on that otherwise pleasant day only grew as sweat trickled down the back of my neck. I wished for a good hoe.


Iowa pioneers killed snakes by the thousands during our state's early years. Throughout May, settlers frequently reported snakes sunning themselves in field furrows or the paths cut through the grass between cabin and road.

Often when pioneers cleared land or went grubbing, a concealed snake would bite. Cows and dogs also were frequent victims. There simply wasn't enough room for snake and man.

While rattlers, blacksnakes, blue racers and the common garter proved too resilient to be wiped out, in time persistent pioneers did significantly reduce their ranges.


Sometimes pioneers found bull snakes in their cabins, ironically curled against shelf-laden Bibles. I suspect a few settlers found some cosmological significance in this juxtaposition.

There also are accounts of strapping young farm hands who grew hysterical in the presence of snakes. Such men weren't cowards. Most of us have an instinctual repulsion at the sight of snakes. It runs deep in our evolutionary history, and other primates have the same reaction.

Thanks to the power of reason, we fortunately can overcome - or at least control - our fear. It's a matter of learning about them, of spending time near them, even if they're still on the other side of the glass. We don't have to like snakes, just acknowledge that they're not inherently evil.

After all, while a serpent did tempt in the garden, humanity of its own choosing bit into the apple. Man, not snake, is responsible for our fall.

And the pride that won't let us admit we have no one to blame but ourselves is the most dangerous evil of all.


These days, snakes aren't the threat they were in pioneer times. As we've modified the landscape to fit our needs, we've wiped out the habitats many native species required for their prey to thrive; some of them consider our suburban lawns and cornfields great wastelands.

I doubted the snake in the grass before me was poisonous; certainly I'd have heard if a venomous snake were common in the area. And it was only a couple of feet long at best. Still, a black V under its eye that ran to the mouth gave it a sinister appearance, like Darth Vader's mask.

But I had scared this snake just as much as it had me. The notion of striking it with a hoe suddenly seemed as repulsive as the snake itself.


The snake and I had to end our standoff, though. My hope was that if I didn't move, it wouldn't be startled and strike.

After a few seconds of waiting for me to attack, it made a fast break into the grass. Perhaps if I would have lived 150 years ago, I'd have come back for it and its brethren with hoe in hand.

But there was no point other than to later pound my chest. After all, it just wanted to be left alone.

(originally published May 22, 2005)

May 18, 2005

Iowa’s greatest hero offers hope from our imaginations

This month Iowans celebrate the birthday of our greatest native son - Captain James T. Kirk.

Although yet to be born, Kirk is the first earth commander to successfully reach the edge of the galaxy and return (he did it twice), and the first earth commander to reach the galaxy's center. He successfully repulsed V'Ger, Nomad, the whale probe and the doomsday machine before they reached earth, prevented various potential wars with Romulans, Gorns, Klingons and a variety of other alien races, is the youngest starship captain in history, and is the only cadet to ever beat the "no-win" Kobayashi Maru test (he reprogrammed the test software). He also was involved in 17 different temporal violations, but they all were for the better.

Wait a minute, you say, Captain Kirk was born in March - it says so right on the memorial marker in downtown Riverside!

Well, not so fast. Accord-ing to an archive kept at the University of Manitoba, Andrew Main's detailed analysis of stardates, "Stardates in Star Trek FAQ," argues that Kirk was born May 7 - not March 22 as the Riverside marker records.

And Main should be taken seriously. He's developed software that will help you calculate stardates for any day (http://startrek.dialcom.com.pl/htmls/dg_prog.html).

• • •

I'd sometimes gaze up at the night sky and wonder as a child at the myriad of stars stretching around me. Just what was out there?

Watching Walter Cronkite each night on television tell of war, murder, corruption and disease, I confidently believed there had to be something better. Or at least something different.

And if those worlds were-n't as well off, perhaps we could do for them what we weren't doing here on earth: Helping others improve their lives.

There once was a "Star Trek" episode in which a child sat against a tree watching the night sky, dreaming of starships and adventures as a falling star flashes past. I once was that kid.

Somehow I think Jim Kirk was, too.

• • •

That James T. Kirk should be born in Riverside is fitting. The University of Iowa long ago constructed an observatory near the small village.

Kirk also is an intriguing mixture of this area's political philosophies. He possesses Iowa City's liberal views regarding tolerance, diversity and the Prime Directive (Don't interfere with those cultures less developed than you.). Yet, he frequently acted like the conservatives who make up Iowa's farm country: He had no problem violating the Prime Directive if it meant bringing freedom to op-pressed sentient beings or to prevent a perceived threat to the Federation.

But Kirk's Riverside connection goes deeper than that. There is the isolation of rural life, of being too far away from anyone to talk to. All day long, there is nothing upon the horizon but empty fields and open sky. At night, there is only the solitary light of a distant farmhouse.

But in the starry sky, the lights are many.

• • •

None of the filmed "Star Trek" shows or movies ever indicated Captain Kirk was born in Riverside.

The writer's guide for the original series did say he was from Iowa. And in Star Trek IV (the whale movie, for non-fans), he admitted "I'm from Iowa. I just work in outer space."

Riverside decided to snatch this claim to fame in the 1980s, and now several Star Trek books and the series' official Web site, www. startrek.com, lists Riverside as Kirk's birthplace. The village offers a gate marking his birthplace, and there's a stone monument beyond that.

But nowhere in the series is Captain Kirk's birthdate ever given as March 22. That's actually the birthdate of William Shatner, the actor who played Kirk. But alas - the University of Manitoba archive aside - March 22 has been listed as well on the official Web site as Kirk's birthdate.

• • •

Captain Kirk is by far more a man of our century rather than the 23rd. His personality traits are a humanist version of the cowboy. Kirk is self-disciplined and possesses immense willpower. A man of duty, he won't be intimidated or bullied. He has a sense of right and wrong, is chivalrous and of deep conviction. He is courageous, brave and fearless in the face of imminent danger, a man of honor and of great dignity (indeed, he never sulks or whines about unfair situations). Decisive, he thinks on his feet and is loyal to his friends.

Yet while riding through the stars, he is tolerant, compassionate and merciful. He thinks of others before himself.

And he possesses a wry sense of humor. You'd have to, growing up amid the cornfields and then wandering the stars in the craft that could blow a planet to smithereens.

• • •

So what does Kirk's life tell us of eastern Iowa's future?

It says there still are farms in Iowa even in the 23rd century. When Kirk ad-mits he's from Iowa, he's teasingly called "farm boy." His face turns red. Like many Iowans, he's silently ashamed of his unsophisticated, agricultural heritage.

If Kirk is small town, that means Iowa City's urban sprawl has not yet reached Riverside in 2233. County officials no doubt still are developing the North Cor-ridor 220 years from now.

When 17, Kirk leaves for Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, maintains an apartment there, then retires to the Rockies. His brother, Sam, moves to the planet Deneva. Yes, Iowa still suffers a brain drain problem in the 23rd century.

Kirk also is able to quote everyone from Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence with eloquence. So Iowa still has a darn good education system, too.

• • •

Near the end of Army basic training, I found myself running out of energy at the 40th pushup of our 2-minute P.T. test. To pass, there were an improbable four pushups to go in about 20 seconds.

The drill sergeant leaned into my face. "Not going to make it are you, Bignell?" he said. A sly grin eased across his swarthy face.

My arms strained not to collapse as I thought of the embarrassment I'd be to my fellow soldiers. I imagined my father and brother and uncles shamefully glancing away as I returned home, kicked out of bootcamp. I heard the laughter of every girl who'd turned me down for a date, of every bully who'd mocked me.

Then I thought of Captain Kirk. I knocked out 10 more push-ups before the P.T. sergeant shouted "Time!" through his megaphone.

• • •

May 7 or March 22, what does it matter? As a history professor once proclaimed during a lecture to my freshman class, "The dates mean less than the impact a man has on the world."

Or in this case, is it "will have"?

SIDEBAR: James Kirk Facts

• Name: James T. Kirk

• Serial Number: SC937-0176 CEC

• Date of birth: March 22 (or May 7), 2233

• Place of birth: Riverside, Iowa, Earth

• Heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Captain Garth

(originally published May 18, 2003)

May 16, 2005

Unintended consequence of the war against silence

There's a certain peace in hiking to a distant spot amid the woods, or even a field, to a place where the only sound is the wind rustling through oak leaves or corn tassels, accompanied by the quick buzz of a dragonfly on its way to a pond.

Plenty of such locales exist; anyone who says otherwise hasn't spent much time in the Southwest desert, the Rockies or even a roadside in rural Iowa. But such places are becoming increasingly rare. At one time, we could live in a place where other than the shuffle of our feet, the sounds of nature were all that we'd hear for hours on end.

"Soon silence will have passed into legend," sculptor, painter and poet Jean Arp wrote during the early 20th century. "Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation ... "


We are conducting a war against silence - a quiet, secret war, at that. There are the obvious battleships such as interstate highways and housing developments, but these behemoths ironically can bring their own moments of peace, through the noise-free car and a room of one's own that we would not find if thousands of us were forced to bicycle at the same time to and from cramped apartments.

No, the war against silence runs much deeper than those superficial contentions.

Real noise comes from 24/7 cable television reports full of the power-hungry advocating violence and of angry hosts searching for ratings. It comes from flashing ads and pop-up boxes when we log onto the Inter-net. It looms, like a semi-truck speeding from behind, in elevator and shopping Muzak. It interrupts our sleep and meals with telemarketers' phone calls. It is a flyer stuck to our windshield.

It is anything that distracts us from peace of mind by attracting our attention to the irrelevant and meaningless. Unlike a passing dragonfly, its four thin wings fluttering rapidly as the blue body darts past, noise offers no delight.


While our own silence can be appalling and is all too common, being able to take refuge in a world of quiet for at least a few hours a day is a necessity.

We must, for some time, let ourselves reside in the real rather than the artificial promises cast about in noise.

"What is meant by 'reality'?" Virginia Woolf once mused. "It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable - now to be found in a dusty road ... now a daffodil in the sun. ... It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech ... (It) is what re-mains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge ..."


Noise's aim is to wear us down. Like Chinese water torture in which a drop is splashed against our heads over and over and over, we are bombarded with distorted objectifications of political thought, Viagra ads and art devoid of purpose except to fill space.

Such detritus soon becomes dangerously addictive. We hunger to know about the next stupid idea "they" came up with, begin to wonder if we somehow are sexually incomplete, soon believe that if a thing challenges our understanding of the world it must in some way be subversive.

But humans are remarkably resilient. We become media savvy, adopt cynicism to ward against the noise.

And that is the unintended consequence of all the clamor: We lose our sense of intimacy with the world around us. The field and patch of woods becomes dull; the dragonfly's lazy wanderings are viewed as a waste of time unworthy of our attention.

In that dark moment, our world grows increasingly small - far smaller than any new street or row of houses ever could make it.

(originally published May 16, 2004)

May 15, 2005

Where having 'no regrets' can lead us

Back in fifth-grade, Billy Honecker proudly told the whole class that he had no regrets. Of course, he was young, but all of us felt a little guilty about something. Abbie felt sorry about hitting her sister during an argument. Jimmy apologized for lying to his mother about doing some chore when he hadn't. Wendy wished she'd invited a classmate to her birthday party.

"What a bunch of sorry saps," Billy exclaimed as we sat about our rural school playground, growing a little gray in mood as if we were in a confession booth. "Your little sister probably deserved to be hit," Billy said. "And you didn't get caught telling a little fib, right? And who cares that four-eyed Charlie feels sorry for himself because he didn't get invited?"

He marched off, stood atop a knoll and gazed into the distance, as if to get a better view of the horizon. He reminded me of a bronze statue, that hero standing perfect and cold above everyone else.

As we grow taller and older, I suspect our sense of regret often expands. It covers not jut the bad stuff we know our parents wouldn't be proud of but those poor decisions we made, the ones that left us in a lesser state. I don't mean choices that kept us from landing a better job or ruined a date but those that seemingly protected us but only hurt the ones who love us.

Mom and dad can reprimand us for sibling fights and not doing chores without personally feeling hurt. But leaving out Charlie, just because he's the butt of jokes, would make most parents anxious about the job they'd done.

Jimmy gazed with awe at Billy's apparent strength of will, then watched him descend the knoll and head toward whatever vision he saw in the cornfield. Petals from the schoolyard's magnolia tree fluttered about him in the wind like snow.

I didn't believe Billy, though at the time I couldn't put why into words. Now I know: How could anyone never have regrets, unless he lacked a conscience?

(originally published Sunday, May 15, 2005)

May 11, 2005

Know your family's past — your future depends on it

This week marks an important holiday in my household. Syttende Mai - Norway's Independence Day - falls on Saturday.

For my Norwegian wife, about the only holiday of any more importance is Christmas. For me, being mainly of English descent, I shudder at the notion of Norsemen having any freedom whatsoever, I see Vikings storming my ancestors' shores, burning villages and looting churches.

But all of that is in the past. Besides, what's important now is familial bliss.

• • •

Recently, after reading Mark Salzman's novel "The Laughing Sutra," I'm reminded of how important a sense of the past and of family history can be to one's identity. Salzman tells the story of an adopted Chinese boy who has no idea who his biological parents are. With no sense of where he came from, the boy finds himself isolated.

Statements such as "Your grandfather was just like that" lack meaning in a world where habits and behaviors are not definably inherited or learned. This week, that knowledge particularly strikes me as my wife, being adopted, only knows for certain that her heritage is Norwegian.

Understanding the past strengthens our sense of who we are today. Consider Alex Haley's obsessive search for his roots. For Haley, a descendant of slaves, it was a catharsis.

• • •

Indeed, whenever I find a situation before me overwhelming, I invariably think of my Bignell ancestors who first came to the New World. Having suffered through a series of devastating grain crop failures in 1840s England, they loaded a ship with few possessions and no money to forever leave behind the land, family and friends they knew.

On their journey, violent storms whipped across the Atlantic; the youngest children were tied to the ship mists so they would not be blown overboard. Certainly if they could survive that, I can weather whatever life in our convenience-oriented modern times throws at me.

After arriving at a Canadian seaport, my ancestors were content to farm the land for the next five generations, first taking on wheat then cornfields. Despite the disasters that propelled them across an ocean, despite their travails in coming here, they knew what mattered: a piece of land to raise their children and to grow old upon.

Their small pleasures came from family and the satisfaction that their labors would ensure the continuation of that happiness. It's a lesson I always remind myself of whenever my head begins to twitch with the notion that I'm not moving up the corporate ladder quite fast enough.

• • •

The past also can tell something about where we're headed. The present, after all, does not occur in a vacuum. It's predicated on what we did yesterday, last month and the year before.

Our decision to ignore others' feelings about our actions often only leads to tragedy - our failure to predict Sept. 11 or to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely is based on viewing the past as a series of dates and facts rather than an ocean of passions and emotion lapping at the shore of the present.

Of course, there also is the biological advantage of knowing one's past: various ailments and diseases often prove hereditary. In my case, each first son of every third Bignell son, for at least the past five generations, has fathered twins (Which I'm told can be quite a bundle). So far, my wife and I have elected not to have children.

Guess which son I am in the family line.

• • •

If you haven't looked at your family's past, you ought to.

Yes, there might be some embarrassments (Everybody's first cousins married one another in the 1800s, OK?), but in those stories also are great tales that hold the secrets of who we are and who we ought to be. Even the most seemingly dull lives carry such truths.

Indeed, my great-great-great grandmother raised 12 children, but on her grave are words about perseverance and loyalty that reach into the 21st century for their wisdom: "Having finished Life's Duty she now steadily rests."

(originally published May 11, 2003)

May 09, 2005

Combating that cycle of fear-loathing harming us all

There was something odd about Matthew Fisher, I thought back in second-grade. He was a nice kid, yet nobody really got along with him - except for me.

Matthew possessed a good sense of humor and a boy's love of adventure that turns a cornfield into a jungle. If you dropped your books, he'd kneel and help you gather them together; if you forgot your lunch money, he'd share his fish sticks and cupcake with you.

Maybe it was his darker complexion, jet-black hair and slight squint, I surmised one day, but that didn't make sense. There were classmates with pointy chins, goofy big ears and blackened teeth who had more friends than Matthew.

We most enjoyed playing "Star Trek" together. The jungle gym became our starship. Matthew always wanted the role of Mr. Sulu, which I did consider a little odd but was fine by me so long as I, a Midwestern farm boy, got to play Captain Kirk.

Even in those days of learning basic multiplication and the world's continents, I had a hankering to write. After penning one space adventure, I let Matthew read it, knowing he'd be appreciative. He liked it and asked if I'd write another, this one about Mr. Sulu.

I scratched my head. Why would anybody read about anyone but Captain Kirk?


The original series of "Star Trek" had less to do with swashbuckling and special effects than politics, but there was just enough of the former to lure a kid who didn't know any better. At worst, the messages could be quite overt - about overpopulation, slavery and bush wars - but at its best, the themes were quite subtle.

Most notable was the bridge crew. Sure, an all-American boy from Iowa ran the ship. But surrounding him was an Asian helmsman, a black communications of-ficer, a half-alien science officer, and a Russian (our Cold War enemy!) navigator. On the decks below was a Southern doctor.

Considering this, hanging out with Matthew Fisher hardly was odd to me. On my favorite show, white people and Asians worked together as friends all the time.


Matthew's father had served in Vietnam in the late 1960s and married a woman from Saigon. When his tour of duty was up, she came with him stateside.

How out of place Matthew's mother must have felt in the middle of a small farming community settled generations before by Germans and a couple of Irish families, thousands of miles from her family homeland, from which only bad news spilled nightly out of Walter Cronkkite's anchored reports.

One autumn day in second-grade, a classmate suddenly parted from his friends, who stood behind some low shrubs, and accused Matthew's "people" of killing his uncle. Matthew just remained quiet, his pupils dilating just as did Captain Kirk's crew's when confronted by a monster. He tensed.

"That's stupid," I said. "His dad fought in the Army."

The accusatory boy smirked like a wolf that knows its prey is weakening and said, "He's even worse - a traitor to his own people!" Then the boy walked away, though later in the day some of his friends called me a "gook lover" when the teacher wasn't looking.


A few days ago, I met with members of the University of Iowa's American Sign Language Club to talk about the newspaper. I hadn't felt so uncomfortable in years.

Unbeknownst to me, many of the club's members were deaf. So, the club president said she'd sign. As she did, the majority of the club watched her - not me.

Having participated in de-bate and forensics through high school and college, let me tell you that there is nothing more disconcerting to a public speaker than the audience not making eye contact with you. That sense of being ignored, no matter how much you modulate your voice or gesture or try to make eye contact is disconcerting. I was thrown out of my realm.

And in retrospect, I'm quite glad for that.

They weren't ignoring me, of course. But knowing what it feels like to be the odd man out every once in a while never hurts any of us.


The night before, a new friend of mine walked across the Pentacrest to his classroom, where I was to give a presentation about newspapers and diversity. Hani asked me, "Why do some people have to put others down for their color or religion?"

"Fear," I said, a bit to his surprise.

Rewind back to second grade. After the confrontation with the boy who'd accused him of being a traitor and murderer, Matthew told me he hated him.

And all of these years later, I understand that in truth what was odd about Matthew: He was a boy of good conscience who fell into the trap.

(originally published May 9, 2004)

May 08, 2005

'May 8' more than a mere brunch for mom

It's certainly fitting that this year Mother's Day falls on May 8. Today also is the 60th anniversary of VE day, marking the end of war in Europe.

But our story begins many years before, in France.


During World War I, a mother of a future Iowa Citian lost three sons when Germany invaded France. But her son-in-law, a member of the Presbyterian clergy, survived two years of frontline battles.

His friend, also a minister, traveled to Tahiti to do missionary work. While there, he wrote a book about the history of the missions on that group of islands.

Perhaps more mothers would have lost sons in the Great War if not for the help of other nations. Tahiti and other French Polynesian colonies sent 1,000 men to defend the Allies. When America joined the war, 2.5 million doughboys landed to the cheers of French.

More than 50,000 American mothers lost their sons in France during 1917-1918.


The move to establish Mother's Day as a national holiday in America had been underway for many years before World War I started. President Woodrow Wilson finally proclaimed the second Sunday of May as "Mother's Day" in 1914.

During the 1920s, Mother's Day became a way to honor those women who had lost sons during war. The Society of War Mothers held ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery that drew large audiences, great leaders and front-page headlines.


The Allies' post-war mistakes only fueled German hatred and led to rise of Adolf Hitler. The world soon found itself at war again.

American mothers sent millions of sons and daughters to rescue Western Europe from tyranny. Sixty years ago today in Paris, one French student, who had lost three uncles in the previous war, celebrated the Allied victory at a parade.

When one GI's jeep paused for a second during a procession down the Champs Elysees, that student, Paulene, jumped in.


American mothers also sent their children to Tahiti so it would not fall into Japanese hands. Five-thousand Americans established a supply base there in the verdant paradise that the French painter Paul Gauguin had made famous.


Paulene eventually married and they migrated to America. They settled in Iowa City, where he taught at the university.

She grew to love Iowa's black soil, which reminded her so much of the dirt from the land where she'd grown up. She grew to love the annual corn crop, which she later wrote of in a poem: "Corn grows green/Corn grows gold (echoing) - gold - gold - gold .../In the silence of the plain/between reflecting groves/it whispers its incredible gospel."


By the mid 1970s, Paulene was widowed and retired. She had not become a mother. So she set about traveling the world, seeing all the places she dreamed about as a child back in France.

When arriving in Tahiti, she carried a book, written by her father's friend, and shared it with the local clergy. They celebrated her arrival, showing her around the islands.

And then they asked her if she'd like to adopt a baby.


Paulene accepted their offer. She had wanted to adopt a child for some 20 years.

On Easter 1977, she adopted a three-month-old daughter. They returned to Iowa City, where Paulene discovered first-hand what motherhood means.


Among Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti are those of a mother and child, in which he captures the warmth and tenderness of their bond amid the lush foliage.

Many of his other works showed the affect of missionaries on the island people.

While living on a stipend from a Parisian art dealer, he died at his home 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti - on May 8, 1903.

(originally published May 8, 2005)

May 04, 2005

Moving to find new hope: A new version of an old story

Only wide swaths of knee-high grass for as far as the eye could see met them.

Upon picking a place to stake a claim, German and Scandinavian immigrants to Iowa usually found just enough wood along the creek to hobble together a cabin. But prairie chickens lived along the tree line, the cow could feed all day on tall grass, and the land ran flat, perfect for growing wheat.

And so Iowa's earliest pioneers began to break the land, turning over the black dirt to the sunshine, making a living in a new country where merchants and government officials often spoke a language they did not know. But out upon those open plains, there was opportunity.

And that meant hope.

• • •

The first time my bride-to-be and I crossed the length of Iowa was on our way to New Mexico for a new job. It was a 28-hour trip to Las Cruces, a town just a few miles from the Mexico-United States border.

Heading through the Plains, the world's dimensions shifted. We were used to Minneapolis skyscrapers and Wisconsin hills that soared 1,200 feet above sea level. As the land flattened, so did the silos into stout granaries. The sky grew big around us.

People still crisscross and head to Iowa to find their fortunes. The direction these years is not from the east or north, though, but the southwest.

During the past 50 years, Iowa's Hispanic population has exploded, growing to more than 60,000 today.

Only Germans - at 115,000 between 1850 and 1900 -arrived at a faster rate and in larger numbers. In Johnson County alone there are more than 2,700 Latinos, nearly twice the number as a decade ago.

The majority come from Mexico.

And they hold untapped wealth. Indeed, during the 2000 presidential primary, candidate George W. Bush released a 60-second Spanish-language radio spot in Iowa aimed at Hispanic voters.

• • •

Like immigrants decades before them, Hispanics ventured to Iowa because they dreamed of something better. Many entered through the Southwest hoping to make enough money so they could return to Mexico and start a small business.

But just as happened 150 years when Welsh immigrants thought they'd earn enough money in mining to make them rich men upon returning to Britain, most Hispanics discovered the United States offered more than better wages. Both groups stayed.

"I find this town, Des Moines, and I said this is the town that I need for my family," Guadalajara-born Jesus Aguayo told The Des Moines Register a couple of years ago. Today, he is an Amer-ican citizen and his daughters attend college.

When William Parker in 1848 built Story County's first cabin, it measured a mere 12 by 14 feet and had neither roof nor floor. Years later, he wrote in a letter of how a year or two he built a better home. "I have now two hundred and thirty acres of land," he added, "all fenced except eleven acres."

• • •

I'd been led to the Southwest by a college friend living in El Paso, Texas, during the recession of the early 1990s. "Send out a couple of resumes," Mark said. "They're desperate down here for people with your skills. And you'll love it in the desert - it's totally alien to the Midwest."

So I sent out a couple of resumes.

A week later on Thursday, I received a call from a man with a thick Spanish accent from New Mexico. He offered to do an interview on the phone. We talked for 45 minutes. He asked if I could start Tuesday.

And so my wife-to-be and I packed a moving van and headed for where the streets have no name.

• • •

For many Hispanics settling in Iowa, language is the greatest barrier. Unlike pioneer times when students learned English by force, schools offer ESL programs to ease the transition. Though beneficial, such classes rarely orient kids toward college.

The children of immigrants always bridge two cultures: At home, they speak Spanish, but at work, in the supermarket, at school, English dominates; in Mexico and with their parents, the world moves at a slower pace, one of "manana," but in the United States, the clock's fast pace rules; south of the border, Monday is Cinco de Mayo, commemorating the 1862 defeat of French invaders, but on the Plains it is a marketing ploy of Tex-Mex restaurants.

So it also was in the desert Southwest - where as much as 65 percent of the population has Mexican roots - this split between two cultures, trying to mix, trying to preserve heritages yet giving up some of the old ways, all so that the future will remain bright.

Our first weekend in New Mexico, Mark took us across the Rio Grande into Juarez. Here was a Third World country less than an afternoon's drive from my home. We watched Mexicans ferry across the river, rowing from dilapidated plaster buildings toward glass skyscrapers that reflected sunlight. Upon reaching the American shore, they scrambled to blend into the cityscape, too many of them for the Border Patrol to capture.

Those who are caught and returned to Mexico usually try again, Mark said.

• • •

I wonder if any of those people we'd seen that day ever made it Iowa. My wife and I eventually did, though New Mexico with its purple mountains rising out of the yellow desert floor was a gorgeous place to live. But Iowa City held the lure of better wages, better hours, better educational institutions - better opportunities.

If any of the Mexicans were successful, they're probably doing what my father did as a young man to save up enough money so he could buy his own farm: working in a meatpacking plant. Hispanics and Asians now dominate the labor forces of Midwestern meatpacking.

It's an industry, ironically, that has come full circle, starting in the early 1900s as an entry-level job for immigrants, rising to a high-wage industrial job for the native-born such as my father, and becoming in the last decade an immigrant job once again.

Today, though, the immigrant to Iowa looks out upon cornfields instead of prairie grass, and very little of the land remains unturned.

But there still is opportunity.

And that means hope.

(originally published May 4, 2003)

May 02, 2005

Even during peaceful walks at night, we need our points of reference

As summer nears, the yearning to take a walk at night grows.

For some, there is something disconcerting about stepping into the dark, as if monsters lurk there, waiting to pounce upon us from behind the bushes. But for me, the world at night abounds with peace. A walk into the unknown, after all, is largely a long stretch of quiet, punctuated with an occasional flare of discovery.

I took many such jaunts when I was younger and back on the farm. The evening's warmth always soothed my skin; after several minutes, I'd glance over my shoulder at the farmhouse, seeing its dimness beneath a rising moon, and then turning back to the woods before me, catch the nearby village's glow. I'd shift directions and head for it.

Crossing the alfalfa field, reduced to stubble by last week's haying, my eyes kept a close watch for gopher holes; though excitement at the sudden freedom reverberated through me, I had to maintain discipline so as not to catch my foot and twist an ankle. Crops give the false impression that a field is flat, but it really is quite uneven, as any pickup drive tossing your stomach around while fording one will attest.

Occasionally in the quiet, a squawk and rustle reveals some wild animal. There is a certain danger. Usually, a raccoon or a fox will scurry away, but catch it by surprise while it's dining on carrion and you could be bitten. And, of course, you never want to sneak up on a skunk.

Such alertness sometimes punctured and drained my stamina. Reaching a woodline, I'd rub my face, try to wipe the tiredness from it. Fortunately, a small depression lay beneath one wide oak tree - even in the dark we must have our points of reference.

If I was yawning too much, I'd aim for that and curl in its soft grass. Then I'd gaze up at the stars, watch them flicker as my lids grew heavy and my breathing fell into a lulling rhythm. Then the night softened, as if it were angels' hair.

(originally published May 2, 2004)

May 01, 2005

Discoveries made during spring walk

In spring, the brightness of the sun brings to light many strange things that have been buried under the snow and dead grass all winter. Oddly enough, I spotted a butterfly wing the other day in the yellow weeds that lined a fence separating subdivision from cornfield.

The wing's bright orange, bounded by jet black lines, lay punctured on a grass blade, its flitting about in the wind a mockery of once was. How those colors might have remained vibrant so long baffled me, but a thing need not be young to possess vitality.

I turned the blade over to examine the wing, imagined how not so long ago it fluttered and darted about like a court jester amusing and entertaining children; maybe even their pet dog chased after it.

But as with all of us, the time must have come when a cold autumn wind flung the butterfly off course and into the blade. Or perhaps a cruel child caught it, and enthralled with his sudden power plucked the wing, then when bored let the debris go whirling about in the gust until settling in those weeds.

Like a tide, the seasons - and passing generations - advance and retreat, though. Indeed, at one time, a young poet's work is first published, only to become an entry in a dusty old book. Everything eventually waits to be rediscovered.

(originally published May 1, 2005)

April 27, 2005

The thrill of being an active character in a story

With apologies to D.B. Weiss.

My torso swung to the side as I jumped out of the bullet's way. Even before a foot touched the floor, I let out one then two shots, each round carefully placed so whether the black-suit ducked or leaped, he was sure to be struck.

Once again my aim did not disappoint. Then, leaning forward, I slid into the elevator, began the descent to the final floor. With several secret documents tucked under my left arm, I wondered what last ploy the counteragents would use to stop me.

Just as my knees passed the ceiling, I saw him pop out of a blue door below. "Wait - wait," I told myself, and then I fired. The bullet struck the overhead lamp, splicing it from the ceiling. As my elevator settled on the ground floor, the glass light struck the counteragent's noggin.

He collapsed in a heap. I sprinted to my red getaway car and once safely inside, swiped the back of a wrist against my brow, mopping away the sweat.

• • •

The above events really did happen. In fact, they occurred several times, usually two or three times a day, during the autumn of 1984.

A college freshman, my summer romance had ended with the promise to stay friends. So rather than moping after class thinking about her, I became Agent 17 at the campus video arcade, playing two or three rounds of Elevator Action, infiltrating building after building, pilfering important files and incapacitating dozens of bad guys.

Exactly what information I stole, who I gathered it for and what impact it had on ending the Cold War never concerned me. What mattered, though, was that for a long while I lost myself in the game.

For when the baddies swarmed about Agent 17, my heart pounded faster. As he scampered down the hallway, my senses remained at the alert for ambushes. When he leaped into that getaway car, a cocky grin slashed across my face.

It was a bank of sensations I only got from "real life" experiences.

And though an avid reader, it was similar to just one book I'd ever opened.

• • •

That tome was "The Monster at the End of the Book." It starred lovable, furry old Grover, the Sesame Street muppet. I got the book in first grade for Christmas and was so enthralled that I forsook opening my other gifts for a second reading.

The plot went something like this: Grover knew there was a monster at the end of the book (That's what the title warned him, anyway). He didn't want you - the reader - to reach the last page, because he didn't want to meet the monster.

So he tried tying the pages together, nailing them shut with boards and even erecting a brick wall as he implored you not to continue to the end of the book. But each time you turned the page, his ropes and boards and walls came crashing down.

Turns out, though, that Grover is the monster at the end of the book.

By bending the conventions of storytelling, the book held an intriguing appeal. Grover had all the speaking parts but really wasn't the narrator. Failing at each page, he wasn't a hero. He acted more like a villain, trying to prevent the reader from reaching the book's end. Indeed, the reader virtually was a character in the story.

Though only the early 1970s, the author of that book was on to something.

• • •

A few short years later, programmers wrote the script for Pong, the first true video game that bounced into America's living rooms. There wasn't much to Pong, though it certainly was more fun (and exhausting) than table tennis.

Part of the thrill came from controlling the blips and dots across the television, itself an enticing device that for little more than two decades forced us to sit mindlessly in front of seemingly amazing moving pictures and laugh tracks. Through television, we could experience other lives - even perfect lives - vicariously. But with Pong, we could control the very pixels that made up those images.

Soon video games evolved. There was Asteroids, in which we protected our tiny, triangular spaceship from random polygonal space debris. Then Missile Command in which we protected whole cities from nuclear destruction. And Tank Battle, in which we actively sought and engaged enemy tanks.

Via video games, we weren't just space cowboys or generals but racecar drivers, Luke Skywalker, frogs, even Italian plumbers.

Or in my case, Agent 17.

• • •

My college freshman roommate didn't like video games.

"Why waste your money on them?" he said. "A quarter only gets you three plays. That's how many minutes? Two if you're lucky."

"It's an investment," I said. "Like stocks, you lose a little learning your way around. Pretty soon a quarter goes a whole 30 minutes."

He just grimaced, waved me off. His father ran a potato farm. Unlike cornfields, you can't hide and sneak up on others among squat potato plants. I figured he lacked imagination.

"So what do you do for fun?" I asked.

He pulled a "Choose Your Own Adventure Book" off a shelf. "Read one of these. Now that's fun."

• • •

Visiting my preschool nephew recently, I was struck how he'd grown out of the need to knock over stuff. If I built a house out of his blocks, at 14 months he'd slap it with an open palm and watch the pieces scatter.

Sometimes he smiled as doing this, but mostly a look of utter amazement crossed his face. He couldn't believe the power of his own hand.

Little kids smash things all the time. Psychologists say they're exploring. Specifically, they're coming to understand the concept of cause and effect: If my hand crashes into Object A, then Object A will fall (or even become Objects B, C and D).

Much of our lives are spent attempting to understand cause and effect relationships. As we age, our explorations just become more complex: What happens if I test my parents' rules? How will that cute girl respond if I say or do this? What happens if I smash these two subatomic particles together at accelerated speeds?

• • •

Soon - right after meeting Shelly in English 102, I think - Agent 17 fell into my past. As with most video games, the story line was plot-driven. And like working an assembly line, you can go through the motions only so many times.

No, something more was needed. A writing teacher would say it was character development. All of us enjoy vicariously living out another life, but it doesn't compare to the real thing, in which we learn and grow.

But sometimes it is fun to slip back into that two-dimensional world where I save the world from alien invaders and plaster the counteragents with an efficiency that would make even James Bond jealous.

(originally published April 27, 2003)

April 25, 2005

We're all in a club of connecting

In the old days - before the 1990s - if you wanted to talk with someone else in the world, shortwave radio was the way to go. "Hams" would sit in basement cubbyholes or dark attic corners and with the turn of a dial and its accompanying whir connect with someone across town or on the opposite side of the world.

Some used Morse code, which required learning a series of slashes and dots then tapping them out over the airwaves.

There still are ham radio operators all over the world and clubs even here in Iowa City. But there are fewer hams. The Internet now connects everyone to 4.8 billion Web sites, and cell phones place a pocketsize personal radio transmitter/receiver in all of our hands.

I remember how people laughed in the early 1970s at the "Star Trek" notion that computers positioned on desks might be linked so we could communicate with another. "Why would anyone want to do that?" one third-grade classmate with her new, popular Toni Tennille haircut asked. "Besides," my teacher chimed, "if you ever want information, there's always a library!"

Today, chat rooms, instant messaging and e-mails abound. I guess more of us are inherently lonely than the popular realize.


During junior high, one of my science teachers was an amateur radio operator.

Wanting to spread the joy of his hobby, he formed a club. I joined. The exoticness of escaping the isolation of all those cornfields surrounding the family farmhouse certainly was a lure for this 13-year-old. It all seemed simple - just learn Morse code so we could pass the operator's license test. Then I'd be off connecting with people all over the world and helping to provide emergency information to regions devastated by hurricanes and tornadoes.

So after school Mr. Purvis brought the club to a school auditorium backroom where the cement walls kept out all of the noise. I'm certain the low cast of light as we sat around a rickety table reminded Mr. Purvis of his own basement ham shack.

I myself liked all of the fuse boxes, piping and wiring lining the walls; it reminded me of a spaceship from science fiction. Besides, the backroom was a place most other students weren't allowed.

And with all of those fuse boxes, piping and wiring lining the walls, there was good reason - the principal soon told Mr. Purvis it was too dangerous of a place for students to be and we'd have to relocate.


Morse code is a learned skill. It's easy enough to memorize by looking at a book, but hearing it is a whole different matter.

I simply couldn't keep up with all of the slashes and dots that Mr. Purvis tapped out. Besides, my parents probably couldn't afford a ham radio anyway, so I sort of dropped out.

Which was easy enough to do because Mr. Purvis just couldn't find the right place to relocate our listening and sending training.


Not that he didn't try to keep us interested in amateur radio. All through high school he'd recruit and rerecruit us into ham radio clubs.

So between ninth and tenth grades I spent time as a hired hand helping our elderly neighbor with haying just to save up money for a shortwave radio.

Mr. Sumner couldn't figure out why I was willing to work so frequently at his farm on top of all those chores there were to do on my father's. Besides, we argued a lot about politics - he was right of Sioux City, but for some reason I kept thinking he'd listen to reason. I suppose he figured the same of me.

I'd discover years later that somehow he whittled out of my father about my saving money to buy a shortwave radio. That impressed Mr. Sumner. In a forerunner to today's National Teach a Child to Save Day, he starting hiring me regularly and even paid a little better.

But he never asked about the shortwave radio I wanted and would buy that Aug-ust. Mr. Purvis never in-quired about us getting our operator's license, either.

Both just were content with providing an opportunity to work hard for a goal.


I didn't listen to ham radio operators on my short wave. Instead, I discovered the BBC, the CBC, Swiss Radio International and Deutsche Welle. Radio Kiev appeared next to the Voice of America on the dial, and there was something intriguing about hearing two entirely opposite versions of the same news event.

It was sort of like listening to Mr. Sumner and my-self argue in the haymow about the intricacies of supporting Iran or Iraq during their war of attrition.


In the end, neither Mr. Sumner nor I were right about either Iran or Iraq. Radio Kiev proved less popular than Voice of America. And computers positioned on desks are more widely used than libraries. It's a far different world that most of us imagined (minus "Star Trek"'s creators, of course).

But constants remain. Most of us long for communication with others like us. We seek connections, which the Internet has made easy to achieve as we trade learning Morse code for Windows.

And we form clubs - sometimes to keep alive an old hobby that kept such dreams of connections going.

(originally published April 25, 2004)

April 24, 2005

Don't give up what everyone else wants

Iowa ranks among the least expensive places to vacation in America, according to an AAA report released a few days ago. Fifth lowest to be exact, with the average daily cost of food and lodging for a family of four a mere $189. That places us among such exotic states as Nebraska (a mere $5 a day cheaper than Iowa), North Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Hawaii, in stark tropical contrast, is the most expensive, at $518 a day.

Of course, Iowa hasn't been a travel destination since the mid 1800s, when we were the frontier. Even Bing Crosby's No. 1 song "Sioux City Sue" didn't help much.

Movies did, however. These days, Iowa's major destinations are the bridges of Madison County and Dyersville's Field of Dreams. This is not to disparage them. They stand as symbols of lost America, monuments to a past that most gave up when relocating to suburbia after World War II (listen to another Crosby hit, "San Fernando Valley").

Indeed, Iowa's biggest destinations are the Amana Colonies and venerable Kinnick Stadium.

What makes Iowa so charming and livable is that we don't have glitzy travel spots.

Which means we get slighted.


Iowa native and Midwest Living editor Dan Kaercher agrees. Last summer, he traveled the state and Midwest to find those unique spots others really should see.

"You don't have to go thousands of miles to see stuff," Kaercher told The Associated Press.

Next month, a book about his trip, "Best Of The Midwest: Rediscovering America's Heartland," will hit bookstores. Iowa Public Television plans to highlight Kaercher's trip in several half-hour shows this winter.

Among Kaerchner's Iowa favorites? The Great River Road and fruit pies in small town restaurants. In Chicago, he recommends stopping at the Art Institute to see Iowa native Grant Wood's "American Gothic."


Look through any major metro paper's travel section, and you'll eventually read an article about visiting Chicago -- and Hawaii, Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, Napa Valley, Calif., New York City and Paris. Not Iowa, though.

In fairness, though, Lewis and Clark's travels along Iowa's portion of the Missouri River have received some attention, and The New York Times has given accolades to Iowa City for being, well ... for being like a little piece of the big city in Iowa -- except we're peaceful with much less traffic.

I wonder: Do Iowa City's features stand as symbols of a lost Gotham?


From my balcony window on the outskirts of town, I see that the neighbor farmer plowed the middle third of his cornfield this week. Out west of town on the naked fields that stretch from here to Des Moines then beyond to Omaha, Neb., farmers have applied lime and fertilizer, started tilling and planted oats.

It's out there where "real" Iowa rests. And when non-Iowans stop amid those great stretches of farmland, they're really not certain where to go.

Most think the best thing is to hit the interstate and keep going. That's what Mike Martin, the production manager for the musical "Stomp" did when his show recently stopped in Ames. Martin drove two hours north and visited the Spam museum in Minnesota, he told The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.) paper. Then he came back and did the show.

Noted Martin, almost apologetically, "If you're going to see the world, you might as well see it."


Martin should have checked with Travelocity, which collected 30,000-plus nominations to compile a state-by-state list of places and events that "... help people try true local flavors," as the travel company's editor-at-large Amy Ziff told the Mason City Globe Gazette last week.

What 10 spots made Iowa's list?

A family-owned hamburger shop, open since 1936, in Ottumwa. The Danish windmill in Elk Horn. Davenport's Community Art Resource Tank, which offers art workspace for beginners. Cantril's Dutchman's Store, a grocery and market like those that existed during the 1940s in all small towns. The Franklin County Fair, which features grandstand events, pioneer farming exhibits, sarsaparilla and homemade ice cream. Gray's Lake Park, where people can canoe, kayak, run, hike and bike. Adel's Sweet Corn Festival. Burlington's 1890s-built Snake Alley, which "Ripley's Believe It or Not" calls the "Crookedest Street in the World." Mt. Vernon's Lincoln Café, described as "familiar and welcoming."

Locally, the Devonian Fossil Gorge made the list. "It's a great place for kids to explore and climb," Travelocity says.

No theme parks and no casinos got mentioned. But good food, friendly service, outdoor activities and historical places did.

Such places, one might say, encapsulate the soul of who we collectively are.


None of this is too different from what makes Cape Cod or Wisconsin's Door County so attractive. Of course, they've got an ocean and a Great Lake going for them -- and marketing.

These days, though, many don't want to travel to such places. They're crowded with a lot of traffic. Dissatisfied travelers seek an alternative.

May I suggest Iowa?

(originally published April 24, 2005)

April 20, 2005

A lamb’s best friend at times of burnt offerings

Truth is, I only became Jimmy Doyle's friend because of a crush on his sister.

So when he asked me to hang around with him that afternoon at the county fair, I jumped at the chance like a wolf ambushing passing prey. Jimmy and I both were in sixth-grade, but Kathy, she was an eighth-grader.

She showed no interest in fawning over me, though, so I was stuck with him.

The problem was he'd entered the wrong kind of livestock in the fair. Though we lived in dairy country, his father persisted in raising sheep.

I was showing cattle, Holsteins to be specific. But little Jimmy Doyle and his sister Kathy were off in the sheep barn.

• • •

Being of English and Scottish heritage, my ancestors raised sheep and wheat. When they came to America, their interests turned to dairying and cornfields, though they kept an occasional hen house and hog.

One strain of Bignells and Rands went to Australia, however. I have distant sixth cousins, now known only by email, who own large sheep ranches near Perth.

So respect for such creatures probably ran in my blood. Hanging out with Jimmy, I imagined myself operating a large sheep ranch (with Kathy at my side, of course). But such daydreams ended when I tried to figure out how I would break to my father that we were selling all the Holsteins in favor of Hampshire sheep.

• • •

Though there are 300 different varieties, Hampshires are your standard, idealized version of sheep: white with black stocking legs and dark, open faces, utterly mild dispositions. When you see a cartoon sheep or buy a stuffie lamb for Easter, you're getting a Hampshire.

Frankly, I didn't know much about sheep back then. But I laughed when Jimmy tried cracking jokes and was content to sit and talk in that hot, dusty barn while most of his fellow 4-H club members wanted to run around the fairgrounds. If I stayed with him, then Kathy was sure to cross my line of sight.

So I played along whenever Jimmy and his fellow 4-Hers started talking sheep. But ewes, woolcaps, spinning counts - for a kid who'd only thought of lambs in terms of nursery rhymes and something herded by Bible characters, this was all foreign, like going to Italy.

And then they started talking about mutton.

"What's mutton?" I said.

They looked at me like I'd fallen off a large rock.

"You know," Jimmy said, "lamb meat."

"You mean you actually eat those poor things?"

"Sure. In soups and gyros and there's rack of -"

I grimaced. "I thought you just kept them for the wool."

"Well, mainly, but ..."

No buts about it ... Jimmy, his fellow 4-Hers, his family - even sweet, pure Kathy - were lamb killers.

• • •

That people eat old dairy cows too old to milk never crossed my mind as murderous. It was the natural order of things. My father did it without any remorse as did my grandfather and I'm sure my great-grandfather before him.

Perhaps my sudden queasiness came from all those images of lambs as burnt offerings. They are the creature of sacrifice through which sinful men tried to re-claim their innocence. I al-ways envisioned sheep quietly grazing in the field as the lark sang. Then some sinful herder would swoop one up, and though bleating like crazy, it would be tossed upon the coals or butchered with the thrust of a sword.

Lambs are the defenseless of the world. All they're concerned about is eating grass in the pasture.

They stand no chance against the lions of this world.

• • •

In North America, we don't have to worry about lions. But there are coyotes, even in Iowa. Though mal-igned a bit too much, they still will go after spring lambs in pasture.

This was a problem even with the Doyle's flock. So in the late 1970s they bought a pair of expensive Akbash dogs, imported from Turkey. Akbash dogs typically are white, muscular and long-legged, sort of a cross be-tween a mastiff and a hound.

Jimmy took one of the Akbash with him to the fair. He said with some of the sheep missing, it got lonely.

That's because Akbash think they are sheep. When the pups are born and raised in the sheep barn, they literally bond with them. Why? Because the dogs are good, relaxed guests. They're easy for the sheep to accept. But should something threatening appear in the pasture, the dogs' protective instincts kick in.

The Akbash truly are lamb's best friend.

• • •

One of Jimmy's fellow club members started laughing at me. "What kind of sheep farmer is your old man that you don't know what mutton is?" he said.

I swallowed hard, tried to think of a good explanation as Kathy walked away with some ninth-grade boy.

That's when Jimmy kick-ed his friend in the shins. "Shut up," he said. "His father just started raising sheep. They used to have dairy cows."

"Oh," his friend said. "I didn't know."

Jimmy glanced at me, winked.

At that moment, Jimmy and I became the truest of friends for years to come.

SIDEBAR: Iowa’s Sheep Industry

You may be enjoying an Easter ham today, but Iowa plays a significant role in the nation's sheep industry. There are about 250,000 head of sheep and lamb in the state, roughly 4 percent of those in the nation.

Believe it or not, that's ninth best in the country (Texas, California and Wyoming are way out front). The largest concentrations of sheep in Iowa are found around Kalona, Colfax and Manchester, where local sales barns are located.

(originally published April 20, 2003)