December 26, 2004

Family, home resurrects quiet appreciation of life

Holidays remind us of the value of home - for even if we do not experience the coziness of family gathered in the living room, perhaps about the Christmas tree or with the Menorah lit in the window, we take great joy at finally returning to our own cabin, where the noise of relatives disappears and peace can be found.

Such silence struck me a few weekends ago when visiting my brother. As the family genealogist, I drove my 5-year-old nephew around the county to show him our ancestors' old haunts, at least on the patriarchal branches of the tree. His parents appreciated the quiet.

So did I - once we reached the cabin that our great-great-grandfather had built. He'd settled in one of the last places west where you could build in a woods before the whole continent opened onto a sea of grass.

No trace of the cabin exists these days but its foundations, and only the remnants of a fence guided us along the overgrown trails to its wooded burial place. I recalled it in better shape - my great-uncle, a man with a Walt Whitman beard, lived there into his 90s, and I remember briefly visiting him as a child, when the house stood on its last splinters.

Chunks were missing in the stones that formed the cabin's base, and swatches of wily shrubs concealed most of them. Tucked into a hollow, only the occasional rustle of evergreen boughs and our own breathing could be heard.

As my nephew crawled about the stones, thinking it a grand adventure (he must have fancied it some great fort), I kept my mind on more practical, adult matters: A cabin there must have been quite wet - but I soon saw the builder was ingenious enough to ward against that; the foundation sat on a rectangular area raised slightly higher than the rest of the forest floor. Their lawn probably was leaves and roots rising out of the dirt, or at least the woods had reclaimed it.


Out on the windswept plains, the only timber most pioneers could find outlined the occasional creek. Some-times when a homesteader claimed his stake, for lumber he'd simply dismantle his wagon that very first night he arrived.

"In every case the pioneer's first thought was to prepare a home," wrote Mildred Sharp in a 1921 recollection of her days as a young girl with homesteading parents, now collected in the Iowa History Project. "It would be a dwelling place for his family, a fortress against the Indians, a nucleus for civilization. Under these conditions building the cabin came to be an event of great importance and produced a thrill of pleasure that could hardly be understood by those who had never suffered the same privations."

Of course, such structures hardly compare to our houses of today with several bedrooms, formal dining rooms and finished basements. Indeed, when Robert Lucas, Iowa Territory's first governor arrived in Iowa City during 1839, he set up his headquarters in the lodging room of our town's most commodious cabin: An attic reachable only by ladder through a small opening in the floorboards.


When my nephew grew tired of defending the hollow against the barbaric hordes, we headed back up the trail.

I imagined my great-great-grandfather as a young man, his family on Christmas morning eating corn bread and bacon (a delicious baked bean recipe survives from my great-grandmother who grew up there, but I do not know if it's her own invention or a tradition she continued). They shared presents - likely simple gifts such as a rag doll for the little girl, a sled for her brother, made or stuffed with the pine wood and needles nearby.

A great noise of joy must have filled that cabin.

(originally published Dec. 26, 2004)

December 21, 2004

When the deceitfulness of riches proves unfruitful

My mother had warned me not to expect too much for Christmas that year. Overhearing my parents' conversations, I understood that milk prices were low and that the cash crops had barely paid for thoughts. The low, hesitant tone of my mother's voice also told me she was a little ashamed to tell her child such a thing.

I suppose it's also why we didn't put up the Christmas tree the first week of Decem-ber as our family always had. Whenever my younger brother or I asked about the tree, my mother would quickly look busy and say we just didn't have time that day but maybe we'd put it up on the weekend.

Then, seven days before Christmas as my brother and I watched a television holiday special in the living room, we suddenly realized that both of us were staring at the picture window where the tree always stood.

I decided enough was enough. "Hey, let's go get the Christmas tree," I said to my brother.

His face lit up.


Being 11 years old, I was just young enough to do something so audacious. My brother, being five, didn't yet have enough self-restraint to talk me out of it.

So we crept up the stairs and quietly opened the attic door. Our parents had purchased an artificial tree, which was all the rage. I suppose there was something neat about a tree that always stayed green, left no needles on the carpet and so easily folded into a compact box. It also lacked any scent and didn't appear like any evergreen I was familiar with; I guess some market sudy determined that the Manitoba fir is a maximum number of shoppers' ideal of a Christmas tree.

To a kid, though, even an artificial Christmas tree is preferable to none at all.

So while our mom worked in the kitchen, we slid the tree box down the stairs. I showed my brother how he should match up the colors on the branches' hooked end with the color slot on the tree pole. After that, we fluffed the twigs and needles to give the boughs body.

Scrambling back to the attic, we started looking for the ornaments. Being farmers, my parents had a simplistic idea of what should go on a tree; a string of lights and glass bulbs were good enough. I found the lights tangled in a large ball atop an old armoire, and then my brother said, "Oh, no."

He gazed forlornly at the floor. The box holding the glass bulbs lay upside down.

Kneeling, I turned the box over but knew just as he did that the bulbs probably were shattered. Sometime during the past year, they must had fallen off the pile of boxes. Sure enough, only three of the 18 had survived the crash.


"What're we going to do?" my brother said. "We can't have a tree Christmas tree with only lights."

I glanced away, trying to think of something comforting to say. My eyes settled on the small attic window, the only form breaking the white glare the tip of a distant pine that stood near the cornfield.

And then it came to me.

We tossed on our snowsuits, rubber boots, stocking caps and mittens and went outside. My brother and I collected fallen pinecones in a paper bag. Inside, after mom had discovered our assembled tree, she gave us some brown thread from her sewing basket. The two of us carefully strung the thread around each cone's pith and attached them to the boughs.

We had a Christmas tree of lights, three glass bulbs and several, wonderfully scented pinecones.


That winter, quite a number of dairy farmers, including two of our neighbors, went out of business. My father remained determined to hang on, though, and the next spring milk prices rose. Then a drought hit the West, and my father got a good price for his alfalfa, soybeans and corn.

Still, my parents didn't talk with any glee when a Nebraska cattle rancher paid us twice the going rate for 200 hay bales that November. They knew how close they'd come to folding just a year before.

Our Christmases got better, too; for a few years, our parents lavished gifts upon my brother and I as if to make up for the one bad year.

But that single difficult Christmas taught me a powerful lesson: The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches does prove unfruitful.

And that was among the greatest gifts I've ever received.

(originally published Dec. 21, 2003)

December 14, 2004

Cracking eggs - and prices - this holiday season

Among the many skills for which I particularly admire my mother and my wife is their ability to gracefully crack eggs.

Nimbly holding the white oval in their fingers, they'll tap it once against a bowl's rim and before the sticky yolk spews out, raise the two part shell so all that's inside plops instantly upon the flour. Then with a slight twist of the thumb, half of the shell slips into the other, as if pieces of a matryoshka doll set.

In home economics, I also learned how to crack eggs, except my brownies and omelets usually included some tiny shell fragment. After my army days, I determined that one could literally crush the egg open, and if quick enough with the wrist, the yolk and its white would hit the target - without any shells and without any of the egg's inside sliming one's hand.

It was brutal, but these days so is the price of eggs.


Since May, the cost of eggs has risen sharply. By November, supermarket prices for Grade A eggs reached a national average of $1.20 a dozen - a third more than a year ago - the Agriculture Department says. Some Boston supermarket chains are charging $1.79 a dozen.

That's sort of good news for Iowa. As America's leading producer of eggs, our state delivers roughly 1 of every 6 of the nation's table eggs.

Driving the prices is a tight supply of eggs and stronger demand. Con-sumers eat more eggs on av-erage than a decade ago.

Consumption tapered beginning in the 1980s when scientists questioned whether eggs contributed to heart problems. Wholesale prices fell dramatically, and some farmers went out of business; the number of egg producers in Johnson County alone fell from 104 in 1992 to 65 in 1997, the most recent year for which the Iowa Agricultural Statistics Service has available numbers.

But when a 1999 Harvard study concluded that a daily egg did not contribute significantly to heart disease, consumers started frying more than just bacon while restaurants offered new breakfast sandwiches featuring eggs. The protein-heavy Atkins and South Beach diets also have gained in popularity, further boosting egg sales. Meanwhile, avian influenza struck European chickens, providing the United States with an opportunity to in-crease its foreign market share.

Iowa's farmers now are churning out 30 million more eggs a month than a year ago.


The downside for consumers is that higher egg prices will hurt bakeries, restaurants, college cafeterias, public schools and companies that make egg-based products such as mayonnaise and salad dressings. Eggs also are an important ingredient in many easy-to-make food products and baked goods, meaning that consumers can expect to see higher prices at grocery stores.

Because Iowa is a center of egg production, we may be buffered from the most severe increases. Still, chain restaurant prices for dishes often are standard across the nation, so if egg prices remain high, expect to soon pay a little more, even here.

It probably won't be enough of a price hike to keep us home. Though there is something to be said for making one's own omelet or cookies from scratch - assuming you don't have any eggshells in them.


For the serious minded, the numbers raise a question: Will higher egg prices boost the state's declining rural economies, considering most production facilities are located in economically weak regions, such as Estherville, Lenox and Sioux Center? It certainly will help, but the state's diverse agricultural economy, which shields against a total crash should a lone crop or livestock suffer, also prevents a single crop or livestock from raising prospects too considerably.

Meanwhile, new federal regulations require egg farms to reduce the number of hens per cage; meeting those demands as farmers expand production may offset some of the profit gains.

They might be wise not to.

For the moment, tight demand is proving beneficial; some New England egg producers, for example, say they're being paid the highest prices in half a century.

Overproduction, after all, has been the bane of farmers trying to get a good price for corn, milk and sugar - so much so that the federal government is compelled to subsidize farmers and even pay them to take cornfields and other land out of production.


Sometimes, when driving and getting hungry for an old-fashioned cake like my mother once made or the Norwegian krumkake my wife stirs up each Christmas, I imagine them at work on their masterpieces: setting out all the ingredients, pouring an unmeasured amount of sugar and melted butter into a bowl, then cracking an egg open over it.

At that point, my mind usually gets stuck in a feedback loop as I ponder the secret of their method: Is it better dexterity? Greater confidence in their abilities? A sixth sense?

Perhaps, like today's consumers, it's simply a more relaxed attitude toward the egg.

(originally published Dec. 14, 2003)

December 05, 2004

When our familiar patterns face change

Back in fifth grade when studying "world" history, an astonishing revelation came to me: People didn't always use crop rotation.

It sounds mundane, I know. But the notion that you have to switch which plants grow in your field from year to year just came naturally to this farm kid. One year corn towered over the field behind our house, by late summer blocking the long vista to the woods along the creek; the next year, it was squat soybeans then the following spring alfalfa or oats, which upon reaching maturity undulated like a sea against the shore of our lawn.

Medieval Europeans figured out this simple system of renewing the soil because some crops pull large amounts of nutrients from the dirt. It transformed their lives. Before then, serfs grew whatever they liked on the land and let livestock graze it when fallow.

• • •

Crop rotation marks cycles that can last three or four years. It's a subtle symbol of tradition's strength in rural areas. All of us recognize monthly moon phases and the annual play of seasons, but crop rotation goes beyond that. The corn behind my house rose the summer before third grade, the one before seventh and the one before 11th. Mathematicians may delight that those are prime numbers (meaning they're only divisible by two numbers). Every year, the "largest" prime is found; so far, the largest is 6,320,430 digits long and was determined just last year.

People didn't always know about prime numbers, either. Euclid "discovered" them in 350 B.C. But they also altered people's lives, though more ours than the ancients. We use them in computing and cryptography.

• • •

Much of life, interestingly, is a puzzle to be solved. As toddlers we must grasp language. As school children we tussle with social hierarchies. By our teen years, it's romance and the other gender. In adulthood, it's the politics of the work place. In the farm field, it's outguessing the weather.

For each of these, we turn to models. What does the older sibling, classmate or colleague do? We plow through experts' books and hear consultants speak. We gaze up at the sky and know that certain clouds and the feel of the wind from a certain direction signal rain.

Some despair this fact of existence - and our puzzles can at times be frustrating to the point that one turns red. Though the rest of the world moves along, fear of change rules some people's day.

Such fright isn't necessarily of the future but of the repudiation of what we've become comfortable with. Once the puzzle seems to make sense, changing means new solutions must be learned. I know. Corn should have grown behind my house when I was a junior in college because that's the pattern I'd learned.

But that year my father changed up the crop rotation and the field lay fallow. The soil needed more nourishment. That wasn't too difficult to grasp. After all, there always is one larger prime number to discover.

(originally published Dec. 5, 2004)

December 03, 2004

Thank cold weather for our livelihood

This past week, winter's first real snows fell upon Iowa City. To the fanciful at heart, crunching footsteps across the white is a bit like returning to the Ice Age, that time when humanity relied on mammoth and flint spears to survive. A snap of cold wind crystallizes your breath, and you really do wish for a thick fur to pull over your head.

Some scientists say we've never really left the Ice Age, that we're just at the cycle's warm end. For the past 1.8 million years, the snows and glaciers have charged then retreated across the Northern Hemisphere 17 times.

Indeed, just 100 centuries ago - barely a fraction of the time that the earth has been around - huge glaciers dipped into north central Iowa until finally melting and creating the landscape we know today.


Sometime around 13,000 years ago, the Des Moines glacier lobe stalled in the region as the climate temporarily warmed. Meltwater floods washed open valleys to the south, creating glacial lakes.

As the water evaporated and drained off, our state's greatest inland river basins - the Iowa, Boone, Des Moines, Big Sioux, Rac-coon, Skunk, Little Sioux and Winnebago - formed.

The enormous ice sheets departed Iowa some 5,000 years later, leaving flat tundra covered by a muddle of clay, sand, gravel and boulders. Out of the west, wind blew glacial dust, also known as loess, across much of southern Iowa, forming the soil upon which we plant our corn and soybean fields today. Along the Missouri River, some loess piled into bluffs.

But 10,000 years wasn't enough time for the meltwater to flow out. In north central Iowa, some of it settled upon the plain in swamps. The state's earliest settlers drained those wetlands, making the land good for farming and villages. Pio-neers created the channels that Mother Nature was still working on.


But good farmland and the rivers our cities now hug is not all the last Ice Age left us.

The state's northeast corner remained uncovered by glaciers, allowing the Iowa Pleistocene snail to eke out a living for more than 400,000 years in that part of the world. It's very existence to-day relies upon rocks that the last Ice Age's cold crack-ed open; thousands of years ago, meltwater drained into the fissures and froze be-neath the ground, creating a habitat that's still frigid even in our summer's heat.

For the Iowa Pleistocene snail, no bigger in diameter than a shirt button, it's perfect quarters. Unfortunately, it's a shrinking environment. The snail can only be found on 37 algific talus slopes in Iowa and Illinois.

Its existence is as dependent as ours is on what the Ice Age left behind.


As glaciers did not cover all of Iowa during the last Ice Age, humanity was able to subsist below those mountains of compacted snow. More than 200 Clovis and Folsom points - stone tools of flint from before 10,800 B.C. - have been found in Iowa.

Living near streams or rivers, these first Iowans ate deer and small mammals, fished and picked berries - not unlike many of the first pioneers as they waited for their first crops to rise from the fertile soil. But Stone Age Iowans also hunted large game such as mammoth, mastodon, caribou and an extinct form of bison.

Some conjecture that these early humans caused each of these giant beasts to become extinct, just as modern Europeans exterminated passenger pigeons and dodo birds. Perhaps. Most likely the dramatic shift in climate did in these creatures. Could an Arctic polar bear, after all, survive in modern Iowa?

In any case, Stone Age Iowans did not know of guns, axes and plows. Such tools allowed humanity to prosper only in the Ice Age's aftermath.


Mother Nature may yet have her way with us, though.

Most gaps between glac-iation have lasted only 8,000-12,000 years. We're overdue for another Ice Age.

Following a cooling of average temperatures from 1940 to 1975, many scientists and environmentalists predicted during the '70s that the 18th Ice Age was upon us. These days, though, apocalypse takes the shape of global warming.

Ironically, if we are warming the earth, that nightmare may help us avert the next onslaught of glaciers. Perhaps the question before us is which will be the lesser of two evils: adapting to a cold planet or to a hot one?

As you enjoy your coffee while the flakes swirl on the window's other side, it is something to contemplate.

(originally published Dec. 7, 2003)

November 30, 2004

Learning a new language in their new world of Iowa

In a small basement room tucked at the back of West Liberty's library, five of the city's newest residents met two Mondays ago. They've come from Colombia and four very different parts of Mexico, but all five have one thing in common - the desire to learn English.

Low voiced and hunched over their desks as if having trouble seeing the page, each adult in turn reads from a journal, an assignment to explain in ingles what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner the day before. It's 6:15 p.m., and each one of the adults already has put in a full day's work.

"Today is Nov. 16, 2003," one reads, "It is 8:30 in the night. For breakfast this morning, I ate cookies. For lunch I ate enchiladas. For dinner I ate eggs, beans and toast with butter."

J.D. Munoz, still decked in his McDonald's managers uniform, stands in front of the class. He leads this session, one of four sessions that Muscatine Community College offers weekly at the library. He corrects their pronunciation and tense, partially in English, partially in Spanish: "8:30 at night," he says, "8:30 in the morning, 3:30 in the afternoon."

The student who'll read next mouths his journal entry as Munoz elaborates. A yellow-covered "Photo Directory of American English" sits next to his paper.

After each journal reading, Munoz also is quick to tell them "good job" and point out what they got right. It seems so minor telling them he was impressed that they used "ate" instead of "eat," but each of his students' faces brightens. One of them crosses out a word in his notebook and scribbles another one in the meager space above it. They listen a little more closely to the next journal reading and smile when he uses "ate" instead of "eat."


Not too far into the class, the students hear a guest speaker, a young woman in her 20s. A native English speaker who grew up amid southern Iowa's cornfields, she's studied espanol for several years.

Still, her face blushes as she begins speaking in Spanish. She talks at a moderate pace, obviously trying not to stumble over her sentences. Sometimes an English word, such as "which," slips into a sentence.

The students listen politely, their eyes growing larger when she slows, like parents waiting for a child to say the word that the meaning of the whole sentence hinges on.

Later, she looks away, trying to think of the word, a long "uh -" breaking her speech. The students lean forward, resisting the temptation to blurt out the word they know must come next.

She will not learn, after all, by being given the an-swers.


Most of the students wear hooded sweatshirts, beat-up caps and blue jeans. One used to be a newspaper reporter in Mexico City. For a woman from Colombia, Thursday was her first Thanksgiving in the United States.

Munoz tries to explain the holiday. "It's about being with your familia," he says. The students give him knowing nods.

"And the pilgrims," he adds. Some of the students' brows furrow.

Later in the class - it goes 21/2 hours until 8:30 p.m. - they'll learn something about the American farm of the 1930s by reading "Charlotte's Web." Besides expanding their vocabulary and understanding of English grammar, it'll help them better grasp the rural history of the state they've moved into.

The young woman passes a handout to the students when Munoz tells them to take a short break. As the students rise and accept the handout, they do not say gracias.

They say "Thank you."

(originally published Nov. 30, 2003)

November 16, 2004

Finding something to do now that yard work is done

Right about a week before Thanksgiving, the yard work ends. Usually a few hard freezes and the first snow put a stop to it. If not, as is the case this year, we simply run out of things to do about the yard.

Oh sure, there's always something: oil the gate hinges, rake the few leaves that have flittered in from a neighbor's lawn, hang the Christmas lights early. But the main tasks of our outdoor work - mowing, raking, gardening - are over. Besides, the sun lets off too little warmth on a Saturday afternoon to make such puttering anything more than a chore.

Gradually we accept that the next few months will be spent inside, with only a few breaks for shoveling snow. Most of us pray there only will be a few breaks.


Every once in a while I talk to someone who lives down South. Upon discovering that I reside in Iowa, he'll invariably say, "You must get a lot of work done, having to spend so much time inside."

Ruminating for a moment, I ask, "Why's that?"

"Exceptionally long winters - you can't go out in the cold, right?"

Now, I suppose we Mid-westerners do spend a little more time inside during winter than other seasons; cabin fever is a documented psychological condition. And many times I've seen my father on a cold winter day, staring out the picture window at the sky graying over the cornfield, hands behind his back.

Just as the snowflakes begin to swirl, a smile would swing across his face. He suddenly had something to do.


"Old school," some would call me father and others like him: A man who believes activity alone is not enough. Instead, it must be productive, with a tangible, measurable result.

You can rake leaves be-cause leaving them on the ground encourages weeds. You might rake leaves be-cause a green lawn is a sign of middle class self-respect.

Yet the real, subconscious reason most men like my father rake leaves is because it requires planning with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Our efforts must begin with a strategy. From which corner of the yard will we start? How many piles will we make? How far apart will those piles be to minimize our labors?

Undermining our work, like a villainous story character, the wind blows leaves off our pile, forcing us to redouble our efforts, or to reorganize our piles in a way that minimizes our losses.

Realizing a short time later that our last pile has been bagged, we wipe sweat off the brow with the back of a wrist and as muscles ache lean against the rake handle then gaze at what we've accomplished. Our eyelids flutter. We've exhausted ourselves enough that a nap is in order.


Call me "new school." Or more aptly "all school." I've come to believe that activity doesn't demand constant planning or work to be useful when the activity is seeking knowledge.

Of course, that's a difficult concept for many to accept. Poor reading rates, lowest common denominator television programming and the profusion of recreational options in our society imply that leisure for many does not equal learning. Further, if learning doesn't lead to dollars, then it's not worthwhile.

For me, though, stumbling across a Web site about the stars nearest our sun offers the chance for a tantalizing journey. I probably won't ever use this information, unless somehow finding myself at a cocktail party full of astronomers.

Frequently, though, I find myself leaning back in my executive chair and staring at the map of our stellar neighbors - Alpha Centauri, Barnard's Star, Wolf 359 - and thinking the strangest thoughts: From which corner of the map should I start clicking onstars to discover their location in constellations and potential planets? How many stars should I bother to visit, as most in our galaxy are unremarkable dim, red dwarves? How will I be able to keep track of "where I've been" if some stars are skipped?

Every once in a while as these thoughts cross my mind, especially on a brisk November day, I'll quick glance at the window.

Each time, a smile fills my face. I now have something to do.

(originally publisher Nov. 16, 2003)

November 14, 2004

The day most of my classmates came down from the tree

Billy Honecker possessed a unique notion of who could climb the oak tree at our elementary school. I'm not quite sure what it was, but somehow his concept centered on whether he approved of you or not.

If questioned about why he told you to go away if coming near the oak, Billy always gave some reason. Linda liked to read books, and that bothered him because no one should read too much. Wendy was overweight, and if she got onto the first branch, he was sure she'd break it - then our tree never would be the same again. As for Jim, there was nothing wrong with him exactly, but his father didn't hunt, so that made the son a bit suspicious.

This occurred back in the days when schools weren't concerned about being sued if a kid fell from a tree and broke his arm. Back then, a good climbing tree was just considered another piece of playground equipment.

And what a grand tree it was: wide swaths of sturdy branches whose top stood as tall as the school building itself. It grew on a slope, so if you stood upon the north side, there was less tree to climb before reaching that first branch. The principal had a rule that we couldn't go higher than that, but some of us tried reaching the top anyway.

• • •

If there was one kid who could reach the top, it was Scott. Skinny as a No. 2 pencil, his arms held Popeye-like strength, which made him a little weird to look at but perfect for climbing trees. He could pull himself up to the next limb with ease but was light enough that the ever thinning branches beneath his feet wouldn't crack.

One day while Billy had to stay inside for the first part of recess, we decided the perfect opportunity had arrived to see if Scott could climb the tree. The teacher would be busy with Billy, after all. So as the sun shined down upon us and the unpicked September corn waved in the breeze in the field beyond, we gazed up to watch Scott ascend.

He'd made it half way up, to the fourth branch from the ground, when Billy arrived from his conference.

"What's he doing up there?" Billy wailed.

"He's trying to reach the top," someone said.

"He's not allowed in our tree," Billy said. "He talks stupid."

We had to admit, Scott's voice was a little different than ours. But you got used to it, and after awhile didn't even notice.

"That's dumb," Linda said as she marched off. "Why don't you try being more tolerant?"

"Tolerant" was one of those buzzwords the teacher bandied about.

"Give me a break," Billy said. "Don't say I'm not tolerant when you're not tolerant of what I think!"

• • •

To our fourth-grade minds, Billy had a point. How could we criticize someone for being intolerant without being intolerant ourselves? Didn't Billy have a right to not like someone, no matter how dumb the reason seemed? And who were we to think his ideas were dumb anyway?

Fortunately I had a crush on this blonde haired girl who essentially was the valedictorian of our 12-person class. So I always was trying to be smart and had borrowed "How to Win an Argument" from a friend's dad, who taught rhetoric at a nearby college. The book didn't make much sense, but it helped me figure out why my father always won our arguments.

It struck me at that moment that Billy was applying a logical fallacy, specifically a type of ad hominem argument. Linda's claim had been "refuted" by attacking her rather than her contention. In short, Linda didn't practice what she preached and so had no reason to be critical.

It's kind of like when one drunk says to the other, "You know, we've got a drinking problem," and the other responds, "You're a drunk, so don't call me one!" - and they just keep on getting soused.

And Billy just keeps on being intolerant.

I figured there was no point in explaining this to him. "Scott, come on down, we'll go somewhere else," I said. He did, and then the rest of us kids, awed at how far he'd gotten, scrambled after him, leaving Billy to clamber around the oak by himself, all red in the face the whole while.

(originally published Nov. 14, 2004)

November 07, 2004

Gloating, sulking: 2 hues of 1 color

Jimmy Rocca was a sore loser - which made him a poor winner. Because of it, playing softball at our rural elementary school, the first row of the neighbor farmer's cornfield marking our outfield grass line, always became a chore.

We've all known sore losers, the kind who sulk and accuse the other side of cheating or getting a lucky call from the ump.

But the poor winner is just as immature. And Jimmy Rocca was a master of immaturity: "Ha! You guys really stunk!" he'd shout as the recess bell rang. "We could've beat you with one hand tied behind our back!"

Most of us wished we could tie one hand over Jimmy's mouth. We could take a teasing, but in Jimmy's case, victory demanded total, unconditional surrender on our part.

"We've never beat you that bad before!" he'd yell as we scrambled down the hallway to our classrooms. "Next time we'll probably beat you by 10 hits!"

Gradually his talk shifted to how incompetently we'd handled even the things we did well during the game. "If you wouldn't have swung so early, that one hit would have shot right into the cornfield, and you could have had a homer instead of just getting to third," he say. "If you would have thrown it to first instead of second, you could've got two outs instead of one."

Whether we said anything to Jimmy didn't matter. He was going to keep talking until he got off the bus.

Some think Jimmy was just overexcited. Sure, you can't blame someone for celebrating. But to get egomaniacal about it? To express the same symptoms as if he'd lost? Hmm ...

(originally published Nov. 7, 2004)

October 26, 2004

End of apple-picking — and autumn — arrives

For most of Iowa, this week marks the end of apple-picking season. Most of the sacred fruit have fallen from the trees. Walk along a dirt path, the curled leaves crackling beneath the feet, and you might be lucky enough to find a Winesap, the last of apple varieties to ripen. But they're tart to the tongue and best left alone.

For a number of years, most of us have relied on supermarkets or orchards to pick the fruit we eat. And our taste has dulled for it; most are happy with the ubiquitous Red Delicious, which is a pretty good apple, really, but eating only it is akin to having just one shade of red in your Crayon box. No burgundy, pink, maroon, salmon, magenta or copper makes for a dull palette, so to speak.

Picking fruit is hard work, of course. If you want more than a bag, there's a lot of reaching upward, an unnatural direction for blood to flow, and there's the chance you may have to climb a ladder, difficult on the instep if stretching for branches. It's time consuming, too; most people in orchards go for the easy fruit that's at eye level, so if you're not among the first to arrive, there's a lot of walking and searching.

Too many apples, orchard-goers often discover, are cut and bruised, even before they've fallen. There's a certain displeasure in finding an imperfect apple, a sense that one's been cheated. And it's true that one bad apple ruins the bunch; apples with broken skin give off ethylene, a ripening gas, that spoils others in the bag. Call it entropy.

• • •

One way to break North America's wildness, to give it uniformity, was planting apple trees. The Pilgrims planted apples in Massachusetts Bay. The first apple tree was rooted in Iowa soil during 1799 near Montrose.

By the early 20th century, Iowa ranked among the nation's top apple producing states. Farmers soon opted for row crops, though, replacing orchards with cornfields. The deciding moment, however, was a severe Armistice Day freeze in 1940 that killed or crippled most apple trees in the state.

Few orchard growers replanted. Apple trees, with their sweet-scented blossom, instead became an ornament for suburban lawns or a miniscule way for modernizing farmers to keep a piece of the past.

• • •

You can chart a season by the ripening of apples.

It starts the first week of August as the Lodi come to bear. But their flesh rings tart and green. A few days later come Redfree, a little better tasting than Lodi but still not much good for pies.

Next is the Gala, which keeps awhile, and then Mc-Intosh, which thanks to its richly smooth texture when cooked, perhaps is the best known and most useful apple after the Red Delicious.

By mid-September, apple-picking season peaks with the Jonathan. The crimson apple with its flecks of green is my favorite. Each bite yields a spicy tang. It also gets along well with its sister apples; if making sauces or ciders, you can blend it with other varieties and not worry about any strange tastes.

The Red Delicious arrives a couple weeks after the Jonathan and then comes the Cortland, which is best for homemade pies. After that, it's down hill with Golden Delicious and Winesap. By All Hallow's Eve, nothing remains for apple lovers but bare branches and waxed imports.

• • •

I rarely see an apple tree when hiking Iowa's trails. It's not like rural Wisconsin, Michigan or New York, where you're certain in aut-umn to run across a wild tree just as a rest is needed. I suppose the Armistice Day freeze and row crops don't lend themselves to wildness.

But that rare find when skirting the Iowa River valley or a bluff near Dubuque only sweetens the discovery.

Reaching up, I'll cup the apple in my palm and with a snap of the wrist break off the fruit. It's best to hold it against the blue sky and get a good look at the color to judge ripeness. Then comes the true test: biting into it.

The best apple tastes sinfully good.

(originally published Oct. 26, 2003)

October 24, 2004

'Connections': Returning home

The world is more intricate than we imagine. The lesson came home to me once again last week when "TalkSport," a British radio station, asked if I could speak a few minutes on their program about the presidential race's effect on Iowa. The interview was live, 6:15 a.m. London time, meaning post-midnight for me.

Of all my radio appearances this election, "TalkSport" most excited me. Six generations ago, the Bignell family left England via London thanks to an ailing farm economy, settling in Wisconsin not far from Laura Ingalls' little house in the big woods (due to crop failures, she eventually ended up in Iowa). The family never has looked back, though we love British TV.

National and international media often rely on local reporters and editors when they come to states like Iowa. We're happy to escort them around and answer questions; you never know when you might need some reporting favor -- if an Iowa City child undergoes a miracle cure in a Boston or London hospital, I've got a contact.

Just as importantly, our guidance keeps them from thinking all there is to Iowa is cornfields and soybeans.

"TalkSport" asked what Iowans felt about Iraq and which domestic issues might affect votes. The hosts wanted to know why we had seven electoral votes. They wondered where Iowa was, geographically speaking.

I suspect six generations ago a similar question was asked in England: Where is Wisconsin and Iowa?

Last week, though, the family returned to the mother country, albeit with a new accent. Could my ancestors have imagined the day when every Londoner might hear one of their own speak from the new home 3,000 miles away?

(originally published Oct. 24, 2004)

October 19, 2004

Baseball reached deeper than just ‘love of the game’

"Spring is the greatest season of all," a neighbor to the farm where I grew up often said. "It's the beginning of baseball season."

Not until an orange leaf flutters in the crisp air each autumn do I usually think of Carl's words, though he said them every April when exhibition season started. Being a kid of the television era, football is my sport. Yet amid homecomings and Monday night games, most of America, myself included, always turn one last time to the golden hopes of spring and those hot, dusty days of summer, for the World Series.

True baseball fans know game by game, sometimes inning by inning, how their team struggled for five months to reach the series. The rest of us just know we're watching the two best squads play, hoping for the excitement of a game that won't require us to sit through foul balls and long stretches of the pitcher getting around to deciding if he should throw the ball or not.

• • •

For Carl, something a little more than enjoyment of the game coursed threw him whenever he talked of baseball.

And though often busy with cattle or crops, Carl still found time to play in an amateur softball league. Once my family would watch him at the diamond next to the Lutheran country church and its cemetery.

While the teams wore matching thin-striped shirts and caps, there was nothing stuffy about the game. Some players donned tennis shoes, others boots. Being farmers, they all wore blue jeans. A cornfield served as the outfield wall. Score was kept on a large chalkboard rolled out of the church basement.

Carl never said how he came to like baseball, but I remember a framed photograph on his desk of a young man decked in the game's garb and holding a bat over his shoulder. A little boy, whose chin and eyes looked awfully similar to Carl's, leaned against the man's leg clutching a huge mitt.

• • •

When only about 22 or so, Carl had inherited the farm from his father. Carl was disking in the field when his wife, Gwen, sped out in the pickup truck to get him.

"'He was just heading out to the grain bins, he was just heading out to the grain bins,' that's all Carl's mother ever would say when anyone asked about what happened," my own mother once told me.

Gwen, who'd been in the house at the time, also was brief. "He just stopped, then reached for the wall and fell," she told people. "There was nothing anyone could have done."

A month after the heart attack, Carl's mother declared she no longer could stand living in the house that conjured so many memories of her dead husband. The following morning, as dew lay like arsenic sprinkled upon the lawn, they saw her off on a bus to live with her other son in Omaha.

• • •

As a kid at the church diamond, I watched the game with indifference, rooting for Carl to hit a homer only because I knew him.

These days, though, I recall Carl's time at bat with much thought. Staring down the pitcher, did he ever find the array of cracked and worn tombstones in the distance distracting?

Perhaps when that willowy voice of Gwen, her belly round with child, rose through all of the cheers, his eyes narrowed on the task at hand.

Maybe the crack of stick against ball threw his spirit into an epiphany, for she'd allowed him to overcome the horror of loss, allowed him to laugh in the face of emptiness. I wonder.

• • •

After the game, Carl's teammates slapped him on the back for the homerun, and the families enjoyed chicken and hamburgers grilled in the open air. He refused to drink beer because Gwen didn't, because of the pregnancy. The guys cajoled him to lighten up, but every woman there swooned at his chivalry.

Sometimes, though, as the sun shined like a glowing tangerine, I'd catch him gazing at the thin break in the grass marking the baseline heading into first. Perhaps he felt guilty about playing and laughing so near his father's grave.

Then, as Gwen wrapped an arm about Carl's broad shoulders, his face broke into a smile. He must have known that was the way his father would have wanted it.

(originally published Oct. 19, 2003)

October 12, 2004

When Indian summer lures us (and others) back outside

Last week I watched a buck frolic through the amber grasses near the Iowa River. Just after dawn, a light, clear blue rose with the sun, but pockets along the eastern wood line remained dark. The buck's horns flashed as its head jutted up then down. Probably in musk, I thought as pausing from my walk, no more than 20 yards away from him.

While I'd seen deer on previous walks - a doe and her two fawns made that part of the river valley their home through the summer - no buck had yet presented itself. Perhaps he'd just moved in; with the arrival of autumn's chill during September, I'd consigned myself to the treadmill for exercise the past three weeks and wouldn't have noticed. But that morning Indian summer had lured me outside.

No doubt it also had inspired the buck. He skipped back and forth across the patch of knee-high grass, strangely like those drawings of flying reindeer in children's Christmas books. Despite the leaves' splay of orange, red and purple, the promise the morning's warmth held offered a respite to our eventual collision with winter. That season does offer its own charms, but too often winter overstays its welcome. Summer, in contrast, always is quick to flit away. Her quick stop at the fence post each autumn never goes unappreciated.

For me, the buck's giddiness changed the whole morning. Now, I've seen many deer in my lifetime, sometimes grazing on stubble in a cornfield, on occasion standing against a grove of trees, once even rolling across my windshield as my foot hit the brakes. Perhaps it's a predatory instinct, a carryover from our hunter-gatherer days, that always causes me to glance admirably at their perfectly curved forms, but rarely do my eyes follow them for long. One deer pretty much is like any other.

But I'd never seen a buck gambol.

And then it froze, thrust its head toward me and stared. I think it stopped breathing for a moment. Was I friend or foe?

My own face flushed. There I was, a peeping tom of sorts, gaining some vicarious pleasure from watching its merriment. A dryness filled my throat, and I glanced at the ground.

The buck did not take the opportunity to run, though, and when I slowly raised my head, its own frame relaxed. Had it seen the look of glee in my face as I had in its prance? Anthropomorphizing other creatures goes against my better judgment, but we are both mammals and must share some common emotions. After all, we both were ambling about in Indian summer.

And then it sauntered off, into one of those pockets of dark. Glancing at my watch, there was just enough time to make the apartment and shower before work. I headed back up the dirt trail, a slight leap in my steps.

(originally published Oct. 12, 2003)

October 05, 2004

Autumn not a time of passing, but one of renewal

In literature and modern song, autumn too often engenders themes of old age and approaching death. The browning of leaves, the rising cold as winter nears, the shorter days, all make such symbolism seemingly apt.

Indeed, "Time hurries on," songwriter Paul Simon said in one of his darker compositions, "And the leaves that are green turn to brown/And they wither with the wind/And they crumble in your hand."

But as the shores along the Iowa River dress themselves in vibrant reds, oranges and purples, I suggest that autumn also is a time of discovery, a time for growth.

If one image beyond the falling leaves is weaved into autumn, it is that of returning to school. Once the textbooks have been handed out and the review of what we'd forgotten over the summer is completed during those first humid days in stiff desks, the air begins to cool and the real learning begins.

Are the rustle of leaves upon the ground like that of tattered old papers or are they the turning of pages as those still in their youth read the words of master poets, learn of great battles won and lost, and come to understand the mysteries of metamorphosis and photosynthesis?

That some find such subjects dull is anguishing, for no one should have such a frozen mind.

And while the harvesting of autumn may mark the end of the growing cycle, it also is a time of bounty. As the scent of cinnamon cider fills the air at a market, how could one not be overcome with surprise at the range of apples - Gala, Braeburn, McIntosh, Red Rome and Winesap - when from winter through summer most grocers sell just one type. There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples grown around the world, and most of us only sample four or five at best.

What of the freshness, too, of vegetables and fruits that come with autumn: the plump tomato; the zest of yellow, green and red peppers; the natural sweetness of squash. At any given farmers' market, there are yams, carrots, beans, cabbage, pumpkin, brussel sprouts and rhubarb all to sample. They provide relief from the machine-refined sugars that dull our palates through the other seasons.

Autumn is a time when we can feel most alive. After the languor of summer's heat, we rediscover our connection with the natural world. We may awake to the day shivering and by noon find as the sun shines upon us that we've overdressed for it, then a few hours later be surprised by the evening's invigorating nip.

When fall arrives, we no longer can idly slide through the day as during summer. Me must respond to in, be in concert with the changing temperatures and skies.

For those who turn a wondrous eye at Mother Nature's power, autumn charges the senses, revitalizes the spirit.

"In Algiers," philosopher Albert Camus wrote in a short essay, "one loves the commonplace: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight ..." To maintain an enthusiasm for life, he argued, is to experience the union of man and nature. Autumn reminds us of that path to finding peace in our hearts.

No, autumn is a time of passing and death only for the myopic and immature (Simon was but 21 when he wrote the above-quoted verse).

To those who understand its true potential, it is a hallowed season.

(originally published Oct. 5, 2003)

October 03, 2004

You don’t have to go anywhere

You don’t have to travel too far to experience an epiphany.

Travel physically, that is. The nearest library is as far as one needs to hoof. A good book usually is enough to offer some insight about life.

But sometimes, not even a book is necessary — just look around and take an interest in your surroundings. What seems mundane, say a cornfield or a crescent moon, really isn’t.

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

There’s nothing New Age about that. It’s a simple acceptance that each of us and the world we inhabit is incredibly special.

(originally published Oct. 3, 2004)

September 28, 2004

As modern harvest moon rises, our traditions fade

As if awakening from a long slumber, each September the harvest moon rises out of the plain and into our collective consciousness. It's something that people of the land have relied on for guidance through the centuries.

Each year during the autumnal equinox - which this time was on Sept. 23 and for the following few days - the moon gazes on us immediately after sunset, right upon the horizon. When it's a full moon, it's a brilliant sight.

In the past, the harvest moon offered a few more precious minutes of valuable light to work by for farmers putting in long hours to bring in their crops,

But then as now, the "cold-hearted orb" climbed into the sky, where it re-moved "the colors from our sight / Red is gray, and yellow white," forcing all to rest.

• • •

Some say the harvest moon looks larger than our satellite usually does, but that's merely an illusion. Objects close to the horizon appear big because we have visual cues, such as trees and buildings, with which to compare it. A moon suspended in the inky sky appears smaller because there is nothing to judge its width against.

Gaze directly up into the sky, and its top will appear flattened. The horizon edges always appear more distant.

But there's really no difference in size between the two locations. We've just evolved to judge size based on the background. It's given us a niche in nature.

• • •

Illusions can be our undoing, though. There is a belief, for example, that we cannot see well in the dark unless there is light.

Because of it, we annually spend millions of dollars artificially extending the sun into night, splaying our streets and yards with incandescence.

Granted, the night can flatten our perception, though our pupils usually widen to see well enough. But with so many glare bombs - convenience store canopies, restaurant marquees rising above freeway intersections, headlamps washing the sky rather than the asphalt with light - we too often suffer from "ac-commodation interference."

It's that moment when the eye adjusts from brightness to the dark. It's that in-stant when we're temporarily blinded, even though plenty of light shines from the moon to guide us.

• • •

In much the same way, the September harvest blinds us into thinking there is plenty. But as we churn apple butter and pull corn from its stalk, the night air sharpens its crisp bite. Win-ter is before us.

These days, not too many of us worry for food, regardless of the season. Grapes grown in Chile and strawberries plucked in Mexico allow us to enjoy seasonal fruits any time of the year.

That's the way it should be, of course. No one ever should want for food.

And yet because of it we lose our connection with the earth and its seasons. The very holidays arising from humanity's long entwining with nature lose their meaning. Why give thanks after the harvest in November when food is plentiful year round?

• • •

With each generation, we increasingly wind away from the roots of our traditions. When shedding superstitions and misconceptions along the way, this journey is fruitful. And we do not want to mindlessly carry traditions merely to possess them, as if we are characters of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," in which for no known reason a village resident is randomly selected each year for a stoning.

Where traditions are concerned, though, our society is akin to the man who has left the woods for the first time and stands upon an open plain. The wind howls about his ears as he gazes across the virgin ground. Some of the beliefs from his time in the forest remain "true" - birds appear lighter than air, the sun still is a ball of fire - but there also are new truths to be learned, about the sky's true breadth, about why a distant object upon the horizon appears large.

We've left the land of our agricultural past for the concrete of an urban future. But still the harvest moon appears each September and "we decide which is right. / And which is an illusion."

(originally published Sept. 28, 2003)

September 21, 2004

The mighty fine road of history and possibility

Coming to a railroad crossing, most drivers grumble. I myself enjoy watching the train thunder pass, the diesel locomotive hauling boxcars, gondolas, flatbeds, coal cars and tankers across the plain, exotic names like the Sante Fe, Appanoose and Norfolk adorning their sides.

Each car hints at a new adventure, like a movie teaser that doesn't tell the full story, only teases you into heading for the theater.

What's in each of those boxcars? Who are Joe and Trudy, a proclamation of their undying love spraypainted across a behemoth of a tanker? Where is Wabash anyway?

• • •

Railroads crisscrossed Iowa as far back as the 1840s. Though no railroad bridge spanned the Mississippi River, small, isolated towns on this side of the continent found they needed to be connected.

Most back then laughed at the notion of a railroad ever crossing the Mississippi. A famous verse from 1851 Iowa went: "I dreamt that a bridge of a single span / O'er the Mississippi was made. / And I also dreamt like an insane man / That the railroad there was laid."

Some people have remarkably small imaginations.

By 1854, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad finally reached Old Man River at Rock Island, Ill. Keen on continuing westward, work on the line from Davenport west soon started; in the summer of 1855, a flatboat delivered the company's first locomotive, the Antoine Le Claire, to Iowa even though no bridge connected the rail lines across the river.

Finally, in 1856 the bridge opened. It marked the beginning of this nation's earnest efforts to tame the Great Desert, known today as the world's breadbasket.

• • •

Eventually the Mississip-pi and Missouri Railroad became the Chicago Rock Island. Woody Guthrie wrote of the "Rock Island Line," a song covered by Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash.

For many, it was indeed "a mighty fine road." Streamlined cars and diesel engines of The Rock Island Rocket, the line's premier passenger train, could whisk passengers between Chicago and Iowa City in about four hours. Its locomotives hit speeds of 110 miles per hour while cutting past the cornfields.

But the modern highway and car soon reduced the railroad's power. People quit using passenger trains, preferring to drive. After World War II, the U.S. Post Office quit delivering mail by train, opting for trucks and airplanes.

These days, the Rock Island Line exists only in song and the elaborate miniatures of model railroaders. Its cars were sold almost 20 years ago when the company folded.

• • •

Several decades ago, the powers-that-be tried to bring the railroads crashing down. In May 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton crashed into Rock Island's new river span. The wooden bridge caught fire; billowing smoke could be seen for miles.

Adding insult to injury, the Effie Afton's captain sued the railroad company, saying the bridge was a menace to river navigation. Indeed it was. Trains were far faster and offered more traveling options than did the river-bound steamboat industry.

Springfield, Ill., lawyer Abraham Lincoln defended the Rock Island Line, arguing that "There is travel from east to west, whose demands are not less important than that of any river." He closed his case with lines often referred to by speakers trying to win an audience: "He said he had much more to say," the Chicago Daily News reported, "many things he could suggest to the jury, but he would close to save time."

Lincoln won the case.

• • •

The towns that most of us went to school in, that many of us grew up in, that many of us now tell stories to our children and colleagues about, for the most part owe their existence to the railroad. Where trains went in the 1800s, towns sprang up.

Mapleton is one such Iowa community.

Settlers formed a town on the west side of the Maple River in 1857. But 20 years later, when the Northwestern Railroad was laid along the river's east side, most of the village's residents and businesses pulled up stakes, relocating across the river.

The same phenomenon is happening today as towns slide toward interstate highways, the modern equivalent of the mighty railroad. Think of Iowa City residents and businesses leaving the Iowa River's east side for the Interstates 80 and 380 crossroads.

At one time, after all, some people said a mall never would go over in Iowa City.

(originally published Sept. 21, 2003)

September 14, 2004

Waiting for our land to turn moist and green again

There are times when a man looks to the sky, and the approaching thunder and lightning cause him to smile with joy.

For many Iowans, that time has come. The state suffered its driest August in history, the National Weather Service reports. The parched heat wilted soybeans and shriveled much of the corn west of Iowa City. Across the state, towns that draw their drinking water from rivers are watching to see if the flow decreases.

Some longtime farmers, peeling back the papery husks of their corn's thin ears, wonder if it's not time to give it up, to retire a few years early, or to search for a job in town, working a few more years than planned to make up the lost dollars.

• • •

Ironically, a good number of people came to Iowa because of drought.

In 1854, drought and an ensuing widespread cholera epidemic propelled many living in the Ohio Valley to head for Iowa. Promoters of our sparsely populated state promised a better and healthier place to live.

And so the newcomers came, many by boat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, then upstream along Old Man River. The "port cities" - Keokuk, Burlington, Davenport, Muscatine and Dubuque - thrived from the human stream, most of which filtered inland to start new farms and towns.

• • •

Almost 15 decades later, much of that bountiful land yields dead corn stalks, which sport ears only because genetics and biotechnology have created breeds of early-maturing plants. If not for modern science, the cobs would be as curled as the dried ground at the stalks' roots.

But Mother Nature finds ways to express her cruelty. These past weeks, there have been rare thunderstorms in Iowa in which spurts of heavy rain left behind "sweet spots" of lush green sometimes just a mile away from a desiccated field.

In the past, such sweet spots would not have lasted long. Plagues of grasshoppers would have swept out of the west to devour the dead grains and feast on the green along the way.

• • •

Among the forgotten years when that occurred is the Drought of 1894. It was so devastating that any time historians write about it, they must use capital letters.

R.K. Bliss, speaking during a 1965 radio program, was 13 the year of that drought. Living in central Iowa, Bliss and his brother drove their head of cattle 25 and 29 miles across Iowa that summer in search of feed and water.

"I worked steadily all spring, summer and fall pumping water, hauling water, dipping water out of wells for livestock, and helping to save all possible feed for the winter," Bliss said. "We cut no hay, had to depend on corn fodder.

"It was a year of difficult problems, which ... were as important to me and my education as any subsequent year in college or university."

Two decades after that drought, Bliss became the Iowa Cooperative Extension Service's first director. He served from 1914 to 1946, a key figure in transforming the state's farming economy through the use of hybrid corn, conservation and other new ideas.

• • •

In the cities these past few weeks, most of our lawns have browned and yellowed. It's a mixed blessing: Unsightly front yards, but we can leave the lawn mowers in the tool shed.

Across much of the Great Plains this year, some farmers won't bother to move their combines. There's nothing to harvest.

Farmers suffering the worst say they're not dwell-ing on the loss. There's nothing they can do about a drought. They must simply remain determined to go on as long as they can.

• • •

Of course, when most hear "drought," what comes to mind is the Dust Bowl, when clouds of black whirl-ed upon the horizon, bearing dark hopelessness. In Iowa, the worse of it stretched from 1934 to 1936, destroying both crops and livestock. A long and severe winter - a cold drought of dry air - killed even more cattle and shortened the growing season in 1936.

That last summer was "the year we got 'dried out,'" said Amanda Koester Lamp, who grew up near Aspin-wall.

"We had 200 acres of corn ... which my two brothers and I picked by ourselves," Lamp said. "The crop that year was so poor that we could work all morning and not fill the bottom of the wagon."

• • •

Any given year, drought, flood, hail, wind, insects, fungus and a host of other natural disasters can destroy a crop. With it, though, go human lives - not just a few families out on the prairie but whole towns that depend upon the surrounding farms to support their livelihoods.

This autumn through next spring, there will be more auctions of farm equipment than usual as the latest drought ends many dreams. Some will say it's just an acceleration of rural America's inevitable decline.

I like to think, though, not of the end a drought can bring but of those years after 1894 when the land turned moist and green again. It's a good image to keep in one's head whenever faced with adversity.

Certainly, it must be the vision of those farmers who are determined to go on as long as they can.

(originally published Sept. 14, 2003)

September 07, 2004

To find our values, we must look beyond the literal

Most of us know a place where our values can be found. These locales, usually deep from our past, don't directly shout their significance to others or us; instead, like an impressionistic painting they live in us through their poignancy.

In Iowa, as across the Midwest, one such place is the farm.

• • •

Gazing across a verdant field as harvest approaches, many can recall the stories of determination, of incredible privation, to which our parents or grandparents held tight so they could survive year after year, just to build their stead. After more than a century of hard work between generations, such homesteads in the Midwest can stretch hundreds of acres about a clapboard farmhouse.

Often those homes were constructed during the First World War's high prices and good times. Many farmers deliberately designed them so the front door faced the churning windmill that constantly shifted in the ever changing but always present breeze.

Just beyond the farmhouse and windmill will sit a red barn and crumbling granary, each added following the next great war. Two decades after that, when many of us were just children, a pole shed and modern silos were erected, their silver caps glowing in both day and moonlight, as if stars.

Surrounding the home farm, broad fields cross the prairie swell for half a mile in every direction. All spring, golden sunshine warms and rain moistens the black soil, and by early summer the wind blows in the heady scent of blossoming green. Through summer and aut-umn, those same winds carry the bawling of white-headed cattle let loose to graze upon the dormant crop.

Wire fences mark the boundaries of these farms; sometimes a shallow creek outlines the fourth side. Along that stream, where the grass never shrivels from the hot winds, lay the remnants of the first family homestead, of which nothing is left but decayed wood and an ill osage orange tree, tough-wooded and bushy in branches only.

• • •

Though there were moments of deep cursing, every family member loved the land and was proud of their farm. And it never meant more than during those years of struggle, when sliding corn, bean, wheat or milk prices conspired with ever-rising costs to destroy the spread just as blizzards, dust bowls and locusts had dealt devastating blows to our forefathers.

Of course, a cow could be replaced, the soil replenished and the crops replanted. It is not always so with our inspirations, though.

• • •

Some people prefer to live in the vanilla world of numbers and hard facts. Granted, those aspects of human existence can not be ignored.

But to forsake the expressionistic elements permeating humanity is to deny the way each of us finds strength, joy and meaningfulness in a universe that is not entirely fair or always fruitful.

Sometimes to find value, we must look beyond the literal. It isn't just a corn stalk, a fence post or a barn, after all.

• • •

To wit: A former colleague. Though an adult living in the big city, she always remained proud of having grown up on a farm, boasted of being a country girl through and through from her first pair of bib overalls as a toddler until those summers of her college years when she ran errands to town for combine parts.

She loved the wind's sound and hung chimes upon her parents' porch to capture it. Through the day and into the night, those hollow bars sang magically, as if fairy dust flung from a wand.

But of all the composers she loved, her favorite was the windmill. She said its purling reminded her of a beating heart.

(published Sept. 7, 2003)

August 31, 2004

A father who didn’t punt, pass or kick on his duties

When our gym teacher, Mr. Anmassung, finished telling us second-grade boys about the Punt, Pass and Kick contest all those years ago, we rumbled into the hallway, each boasting of how he'd win. Mr. Anmassung shouted to quiet down, but anyone could see in his eyes the same prideful look a big cat gets when atop a rocky perch.

But as my friend Sam flipped through the contest guidebook between math problems that afternoon, his brow wrinkled.

"What's the matter?" I whispered from a desk over. "Don't think you can win?"

"I'll do all right."

"Come over to my house this weekend," I said. "We can practice together."

• • •

The scent of spiced apple swirled in the air as Sam stepped back, drawing his crooked arm upward. He flung the football forward, his arm stretching out. The ball plopped several yards away onto the front lawn.

"You don't follow through," I said. "Do it just like I did."

He tried throwing again, but his arm still didn't go all the way out. The ball plopped a few feet in front of us.

"Maybe we should try punting," I said.

• • •

As Sam and I practiced at recess that next week, he usually repeated the same mistakes until they became habit. Kicking was particularly tough for him since he had neither a tee nor brothers to hold the ball. His father didn't get home until dark, so from what I could tell didn't provide little more than words and an ear to listen.

That didn't seem very practical, I thought at the time.

• • •

When the autumn morning of the contest finally arrived, dozens of boys and double that in fathers and older brothers deluged a field damp with cold dew. A white laundry rope kept the spectators behind the sidelines, but they pressed close to see their boys perform.

Murmurs flowed among us second-graders, but when a bullhorn reverberated a name, there was a hush. A potbellied, middle-aged man ran the contest. Behind his wire rim glasses he'd close his eyes whenever laughing, then slap a thigh twice.

Eight or nine boys in the class went before Sam. "Oohs!" and "Whoas!" followed by cheers and claps followed each of their drop kicks, tosses and boots.

Most of Sam's time was spent scanning for his father, whom I eventually saw standing near the crowd's center.

Finally, Sam's turn. The potbellied man placed the football on a tee. He said nothing, and Sam looked at him confusedly, wondering what to do.

Everyone stared, waiting for Sam's move. Then he must have realized what he was supposed to do for his eyes concentrated on the ball. His arms tensed and he started running. A foot away from the tee, his right leg extended, smashing the ball.

It bounced a mere six or seven hash marks away.

The crowd convulsed with laughter, and the potbellied man slapped his leg twice. Sam's father stood quietly, his arms folded, looking straight ahead at the field.

But Sam only turned to the now scornful potbellied man and said, "My punting is better than my kicking."

• • •

An assisting high school football player picked up the ball and threw it back to Sam. The crowd gazed be-musedly at Sam as he extended the ball, dropped it.

A violent smack sounded as the ball hit his ankle. The ball quickly tumbled downward, rolling only a few yards in front of me.

The crowd howled, and the potbellied man brought an arm to his gut, trying to not bend over as he guffawed. Sam's face reddened. Fingers rapidly pointed at Sam's father, who stood stonefaced and silent.

There was one last chance for Sam to redeem himself, I thought as the grinning high school boy brought the ball to him.

Sam jerked the ball behind him with a wriggle hurled it. The football towered above everyone for a few hash marks then waddled to the ground. Nine yards. His eyes lit up like the sun. The throw was among his best.

Compared to most of the boys, it was but half their distances. But no one no-ticed. Those in the crowd were too busy talking, waiting for the next kid - all except for Sam's father, that is.

• • •

We stood for another hour on the soaked field, watching the yellowing corn leaves waver in the field beyond, waiting for the older divisions to finish. When they did, the potbellied man pulled a bullhorn to his fat lips and announced the winners. Our classmate, Joe, got first place and a trophy as long as his arm.

We sauntered in a muddled mass to find our families. I watched Sam, his downcast eyes gazing at the crushed grass.

Sam's father patted his shoulder. "Would you like some ice cream?" he said.

Sam's neck craned upward.

"Say a large sundae at Dairy Queen? One with a lot of nuts and extra chocolate syrup?"

Sam nodded. "And after that can we go fishing?"

"Sure we can, Sam. Sure we can."

They joined hands, set off for their car. Sam's eyes shined like he'd just been named king.

(originally published Aug. 31, 2003)

August 24, 2004

Forget Martians; how will we handle a ‘new’ truth?

The Martians are coming! The Martians are coming!

Or at least Mars is getting very close to Earth - on Wednesday, the closest it's been for almost 60,000 years. In H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," the Martians wisely selected such proximity during their orbit to invade Earth.

A few decades later, Orson Welles adopted the novel into a radio play that frightened a whole lot of Easterners far more than did the recent blackout.

These days, we know Mars probably wasn't inhabited by anything more dangerous than bacteria. The little green men of yesterday now are the Greys, allegedly of the star system Zeta Reticuli.

And they scare the bejeezus out of a whole lot of people, too - even right here in Iowa.

• • •

Just two summers ago, Ed Williams was combining his wheat near Iowa City when he discovered a crop circle. The stems lay clockwise with a herringbone weave. A 60-foot diameter ring surrounded this circle.

At first, Williams and his brother, an airline pilot, thought it was caused by the weather, perhaps micro-bursts, or strong winds that sometimes crash planes. But 60 feet is way too large for a microburst.

A pair of Iowa State University agronomists also examined the formation. One argued it was man-made.

Crop circles also have been found in Iowa during the last decade at an Arlington cornfield and a Nevada soybean field. Their origins also remain mysterious.

• • •

Skeptics blame crop circles on elaborate hoaxes or rare natural occurrences such as plasma forces. Undoubtedly, some are hoaxes. Their elaborate designs, however, leaves many wondering.

At the beginning of the 21st century, polls show a majority of Americans believe that at least some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Though espousers of such views once were ridiculed, more than a century of strange aircraft in the skies and motion pictures about extraterrestrials have shifted views.

Among the earliest recorded sightings in Iowa is from a Sioux City area farmer during March 1897. While tilling his field, an airship hovered over him before descending. The airship tried to capture him, but he got away.

In 1947, a few days before a flying saucer allegedly crashed in Roswell, N.M., a bus driver in Mason City witnessed an elliptical craft flying toward the city. Four similar-shaped objects followed. A few minutes later, he saw 13 more craft at an estimated 1,200 feet.

And during October 1995, an Iowa City man near town saw two white aircraft close upon each other at a high altitude. They then flew toward another sparkling object that approached them at a fast speed.

• • •

I've never seen an UFO, though I've always wanted to. I briefly attended school in a Wisconsin farm town that was the site of a flying saucer flap in the 1970s. The neighbor girl, who was a classmate friend, and her no-nonsense mother claim a flying saucer almost abducted them.

As a news reporter, I once was scared crazy by a silvery object in the southern New Mexico sky during the early 1990s. Though my first panicked reaction was to get the heck out of there, some irrational notion that this would be a great scoop forced me to drive toward it. The dang thing turned out to be a blimp monitoring drug trafficking along the Mexican border.

That also turned out to be a good story, just not the one I was looking for.

But such is the problem with flying saucers. No one who wants to see them ever does.

• • •

Which doesn't mean at least some UFOs aren't alien spacecraft, the physics of interplanetary travel aside. I've talked to plenty of sheriff's deputies and American Gothic farmers who stand by their tales of brilliant lights, cattle mutilations and crop circles.

One former Iowa City man even says he and his son were abducted. While traveling through Wisconsin in 1988, John R. Salter said he inexplicably drove onto the wrong road. His next recollection was of standing outside his pickup truck, surrounded by several Greys. The aliens escorted his son and him through the woods to a flying saucer in a secluded clearing.

The aliens examined Salter and his son, injecting an implant through the elder's nostril. After being returned to their truck, the Salters watched the saucer rise above the treeline and disappear.

• • •

Sometimes we're shaken from our routines as the circularity of our orbits form strange conjunctions. Those moments force us to rethink our schema of the universe.

"But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited?" Johannes Kepler asked as pondering his theory that planets circle the sun rather than the Earth. "Are we or they Lords of the World? ... And how are all things made for man?"

Undoubtedly, most UFO sightings are hoaxes, dreams, panicked reactions to test aircraft and even swamp gas. But what if some of them, say even just a couple are something from out of this world?

How would it change the way we view the universe and ourselves? Would our religions crumble? Would we see our politics as the petty bickering it so often is? Would we panic, uncertain of the fate that awaits us as for the first time in literally hundreds of thousands of years we become the technologically inferior species on our planet?

Would governments transfer the realization of this to the way we treat other nations on Earth?

Interestingly, in Wells' book, not fear but a lack of knowledge was the invaders' undoing.

Bacteria killed the Martians.

(originally published Aug. 24, 2003)

August 17, 2004

Learning to persevere: A continuing education issue

So what do you do if you want to help your wife but she gets mad when you try?

Such was the difficulty my younger brother faced when baby came home from the hospital. He worked while his wife exclusively took care of baby during maternity leave.

When she returned to office duty, he decided to pitch in. "Hey, honey," he said, "I'll take care of baby tonight. You just relax."

She readily accepted.

Until he couldn't get baby to stop crying. Snatching baby out of his arms, she shouted "Never mind!"

Baby soon stopped crying. My brother soon felt guilty.

• • •

"Cripes," he told me over the phone, "how difficult can getting a baby to quit crying be?"

But my brother persevered. It was a trait he'd learned from our farmer father. I recall the three of us standing long ago between two fields, oats on one side, corn on the other, the morning after a storm. A wild wind had flattened much of the oats while a humid breeze stirred the leaves of perfectly upright corn.

It didn't make sense. One field a total loss, the other entirely unaffected. As if the storm had consciously decided to batter only oats that night.

Our father didn't sigh. His eyes didn't go gray with defeat. His enormous hands didn't roll into angry fists.

"We'll just have to settle on using it as straw this year," he said.

• • •

A couple of weeks later, my brother called me back. Elation filled his voice, as if he'd just won $100 from a scratch-off lottery ticket. "I figured out how to get baby to eat," he said.

It was an accidental discovery. When his finger brushed against baby's cheek, baby turned his head and tried to suckle.

Brother got an idea: before giving baby a bottle of warm milk, touch its cheek.

"Ah, the rooting instinct," I said.

• • •

Not all solutions come so easily.

Take naming baby, for example. My brother wanted traditional family names passed across the years, like George, Edmund, Martha and Ann. His wife wanted more "modern-sounding" names. She liked Tyler, Logan, Madison and Alexis.

Her names were on's list of top five names given to boys and girls in Iowa during 2001. My brother's names were in the Farmer's Almanac list of top five names given to boys and girls in Iowa during 1861.

"Talk some sense into her," my brother pleaded.

"'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,'" I said.

"It's the first word he'll learn."

"The first word he'll probably learn is 'mama.'"

• • •

She got to pick baby's name. Some would say my brother "lost." In all truth, he just figured out when to pick his battles. She'd already decided on a modern name, the oats were flattened, and the best thing to do was move on.

Like to burping.

I got a phone call that night, too. How many lottery tickets could a guy win in a week?

"I was just holding him over my shoulder when I started rubbing his back, more out of affection than anything, and he belched," my brother said. "Really loud."

As he went on, I tried to recall how our father dealt with other people's baby stories.

(originally published Aug. 17, 2003)

August 10, 2004

Popcorn's (and young love's) light and fluffy side

We didn't believe Billie when she claimed to be her county's "Popcorn Queen."

Blame it on our well-honed college skepticism. We'd heard of the Michigan Apple Court, the Wheat Princess and even Alice in Dairy-land. But the county fair Popcorn Queen?

So the five of us sat there in our apartment's living room, two college-age couples and one guy (who Billie had a crush on), staring suspiciously as her, challenging her to prove this outlandish claim.

Sensing our disbelief, Billie started telling the entire history of popcorn and an array of nutritional facts. Well, we thought, she did have a boy's name, something odd for a girl from the Plains, especially since her middle name wasn't Jean.

• • •

Among the potential Trivial Pursuit answers she told us was how a small town in western Iowa - Odebolt - was the "Popcorn Center of the World." George Colton raised the first "crop" of popcorn there in the 1880s. At one time, three popcorn companies, including Cracker Jack, operated in Odebolt, and Iowa grew more than half of the world's supply of popcorn.

"And whoever said that the only good things to ever come out of Iowa were Interstates 80 and 35?" my girlfriend joked (we broke up a few weeks later after a loud fight).

Popcorn quickly became "ingrained" in the American psyche during the 1890s, Billie continued (she actually said "ingrained"). Street vendors sold penny or nickel bags, which despite the low price carried a high profit margin. During the Depression, popcorn sold from carts was one of the few luxuries many American families could afford. With sugar rationing in World War II, popcorn consumption tripled as a confection substitute.

And all through it, Iowa led the way. Her face beamed with pride.

• • •

Billie's attempt to prove she'd been a popcorn queen got us hungry. This was in the day before microwave popcorn had been invented and hot air poppers were just coming into vogue.

So we made popcorn the old-fashioned way: shaking a covered aluminum foil pan over a stove burner. The key was not to rattle it too hard - or the bottom wouldn't receive enough heat - yet to go fast enough so that the kernels didn't stick and burn. It was the Rubik's Cube of cooking in its day.

But once the kernels burst, a sweet aroma filled the kitchen. Even if you'd just eaten a five-course meal a few minutes before, your hand couldn't help but scoop up a mouthful.

Perhaps the best aspect of stove-popped popcorn has little to do with its taste but with curling up on the couch next to a loved one on a crisp autumn night, a bowl of buttery popcorn upon your laps. The bowl brought you together, and when the popcorn was gone, there really was no reason to part.

• • •

But popcorn almost didn't make it into our living rooms, Billie told us.

When television came along in the early 1950s, no one thought that popcorn would taste as good in prime time as with a big movie screen. Perhaps it was because making out in front of the kids was a no-no.

Thankfully, large American corporations saved the day.

The national Popcorn Institute, a trade association of popcorn processors, in partnership with Coca-Cola and Morton Salt, started a public awareness campaign (or at least that's what Billie called it) to show American consumers the true way.

These days, each Ameri-can eats an average of 68 quarts of popcorn annually.

• • •

Billie's vast knowledge of this field soon had us convinced she'd once been the Popcorn Queen.

It wasn't too unbelievable, after all. Popcorn likely was planted, raised and harvested like seed corn. Iowa seemed like a natural place to do this.

Most likely a few counties somewhere celebrated this heritage. The Turks wrestle camels, the English roll cheese down hills and the Spaniards hold tomato fights - why wouldn't Iowans elect a teenage girl as Popcorn Queen?

But then my smarty-pants girlfriend challenged Billie to explain how popcorn pops.

• • •

Billie's eyes narrowed as she leaned forward, and I swear the room got darker. It probably was just a cloud passing over the autumn moon, but the effect at that moment still was powerful.

Some American Indian tribes, she said, believed spirits live inside each kernel. Generally, the spirits remained content to live apart from all others, but they angered if their houses were heated. And the hotter their homes became, the madder they got.

Eventually, they'd burst out of their kernels. You can see them leaving as an aggravated puff of steam.

I grinned. My girlfriend rolled her eyes. John and Sandy - the other couple with us - smiled and snuggled closer (they married right after graduation and had three kids).

The guy Billie had a crush on only shook his head. I think he and my girlfriend dated for a while after we broke up. But such is young romance, zinging and arcing from person to person, sometimes sugary, sometimes salty.

• • •

The other night while enjoying a bowl of popcorn, I thought of those stories Billie had told us about being crowned her county's queen, and wondered again if she'd really been telling the truth.

So I went online to find the answer.

It turns out a lot of towns across the Corn Belt have Popcorn Days, which along with the requisite parade of floats, slow pitch softball tournament and tractor pull, includes a coronation of the Popcorn Queen.

Most sites include a picture of this young woman wearing a tiara and waving at the elbow. Every one of their faces beams with pride.

(originally published Aug. 10, 2003)

August 03, 2004

A recent guest on Michael Feldman's public radio radio show "Whad'Ya Know" was asked why he chose to live in Door County, Wis., after growing up in New York City and spending his college years in Berkeley, Calif.

"You can see the stars at night," he said.

"Ah, yes," Feldman re-sponded in a matter-of-fact voice with just a hint of Midwestern self-satisfaction, "the stars are brighter here."

Yes, the stars are brighter here.

And, though many prefer the big city's bright lights, those of us in Iowa who actually can see the night sky know we've got something that those bathed in the neon glow are missing. We realize that without the stars, we lose a little of our humanity.

• • •

While chaperoning a group of bored teenagers some time ago, I posed the question "What if you grew up on a world with no stars? How would your life be different?"

That got their brains going. "No stars?" they said. The notion seemed inconceivable.

Finally, one spoke up. There would have been very little, if any, travel to far-flung lands, he said. Sailors required stars to guide them as they navigated vast seas and oceans. Perhaps we'd possess a greater wariness and distrust of others; the great democracies of history where diverse views were tolerated - Athens, England, the Netherlands - always were seafaring peoples that traveled to strange, new lands.

There also would be virtually no astronomy, another said. That in turn would mean no calendar beyond the simplicity of day and night or the waning of the moon.

We probably wouldn't have developed agriculture, a third added. The rotation of constellations and rising of certain stars, such as Sirius, marked the seasons and warned of annual floods for many ancient cultures. A fuzzy sense of when to plant and harvest only could mean crop failure.

"No constellations?" one of the quieter teens suddenly said. "Why, we'd have almost no mythology." Indeed, how many of the great stories from ancient Greece and Rome, with their morals and lessons, would never have been imagined without gazing at points in the sky and arranging them into shapes to bring Orion, the hunter, and Ursa Major, the big bear, to life?

Perhaps religion would at best be some sort of primitive animism, the first teen added. Our stories would deal only with rocks and ground animals but never with the heavens.

In fact, there might be very little sense that there is "something else" beyond one's hill or valley, the second teen said, whether it be heaven, gods or a distant light upon the horizon to strive for. People would have an extremely egocentric view of the world.

• • •

As I listened to their answers, I thought about a convention I'd attended in downtown Chicago. While walking to a coffee shop at night, I was struck by the distrustful look upon peoples' faces, of how they avoided eye contact with one another. Then, as I enjoyed a cup of coffee at the cafe, I overheard a young couple boast to one another about how Chicago had everything they ever needed, of how unnecessary ever leaving that great city was. A few minutes later, the man glanced at his watch, quickly rose and half-heartedly apologized that he had to go for he was late.

The woman sighed. They were prisoners of time - an artificial time set by the mechanical cogs and wheels of a wristwatch.

A few minutes later outside, I glanced at the sky. It glowed a dull orange, as if the last light the evening sun casts across the heavens before receding below the horizon.

But in that diffuse light, there were no stars.

(originally published Aug. 3, 2003)

August 01, 2004

Discovering truth by getting lost

Usually around mid-afternoon, just as the summer sun made the haymow too hot to play in, I'd say to my little brother: "Want to go into the corn field?"

His eyes grew big as he nodded, and we were off. Two or three rows into the corn, and we couldn't see the edge. Then, creeping along as if in a jungle, we probed deeper, the stalks above our heads shielding us from the sun, the breeze rustling through the long leaves keeping us cool.

Though this new world offered a bevy of potential adventures, its alienness alone was enough to bewitch us. Row upon row of green-colored stalks, all looking the same, were packed densely enough to keep out the world's sounds. Then the quick crack of a single stalk behind us - we swirled about, but saw nothing.

Hearts pounding, we raced out of the field to the open contour of soybeans.

These days, people still enter corn mazes to get scared. Sometime during the early 1970s, farmers who sold pumpkins, sweet corn and apples got the notion that a corn maze would bring more people to their stand. It simply was a matter of thrift. Now corn mazes can be found all across the Midwest, New England and Canada.

As with theme parks, competition and keeping the public interested demands that a farmer raise the ante every year on his maze. It's no longer enough to hack down a few rows of stalks; mazes have to be designed prior to planting, sometimes with global positioning satellites and computer programs (Anyone ready for SimCornMaze?). On occasion, they even hire professionals.

But design alone isn't enough, either. Some farmers erect large towers for walkers to map out their route in advance, some place benches along the way for tired walkers. A few offer a cassette tape with directions (for rent, of course). An increasing number boast a "volunteer maze rescue person" to lead lost walkers out of the labyrinth.

One even provides a cell phone contact in case you get lost.

As kids, we didn't have any tape recorders or cell phones to find our way through the corn - just intrepidness. Staying in the cornfield as long as possible before getting scared tested our mettle. Being able to figure our way out under such tension meant mastery over Mother Nature.

The fear of being out of control rests deep in our psyches, but those who seek it as a thrill know full well that their roller coaster ride will end in a few minutes or that the monsters leaping from the haunted house's dark corners are just costumed people.

Perhaps this explains some people's aversion to maps despite traveling roads they've never been on. Where's the honor in following another person's already proven path?

My parents always warned me: "Don't leave your brother alone in the cornfield. He'll get lost."

That sort of was like telling a kid not to touch a hot stove - the curiosity of what just what might happen if I left him alone overwhelmed me. So one day in early August, I got him lost in corn that reached a good couple of feet over our heads.

I'd been careful to watch my steps so I wouldn't get lost. Exiting the field, I waited alongside the gravel road for ... well, I didn't know exactly what would happen. That was the whole point of getting him lost, after all.

And then, from the middle of the 40-acre field, in a voice that sounded like he was drowning, I heard him crying for help.

Whenever human fear comes into play, ritual and myths certainly follow. The Greeks told of the great Athenian hero Theseus, who entered the Labyrinth and cleverly slew the half-bull-half-man Minotaur. The Romans created mazes and labyrinths on the floors of their home and in street pavement, the positioning playing a part in various rituals and processions.

In Iowa, corn mazes weren't just a way for farmers to earn a little extra but to create traditions, events where families could test their smarts, and in solving the puzzle, amuse themselves and bond. Along the way, some farmers reasoned, they also could teach about our state's agricultural heritage and in doing so create a sense of place that our mobile, mass marketed society is ripping from all regions.

But just as no one goes on a roller coaster primarily to learn about physics, so no one goes to a corn maze to learn about farming. They go for the thrill of it.

If you want to know true fear, do something that your parents tell you not to.

As a kid, I was determined to make sure they didn't know I'd deliberately lost my brother. Back into the cornfield I ran, pausing momentarily to hear what direction he was shouting from (he kept moving around), sometimes hollering that I'd be right there. My heart raced as I looked back and forth across the rows, uncertain if I'd gone that way or not.

Finally, I spotted him. With a big smile and not a tear on his face, he started to shout for me to help him then stopped.

"I'm all right," he said, grinning. "I just wanted to see what would happen if you thought I was lost."

(originally published August 1, 2004)

July 27, 2004

Traveling Iowa by plane, train and ox-drawn wagon

The last time I entered Iowa, was across the Mississippi River from Illinois.

My wife read aloud from a travel book about Paris as we planned a future trip. I glanced at the river architecture.

Around any bridge crossing the Father of Waters, clumps of businesses and homes cling to the hillside. Take a road along the shore, and you'll find houses and boat docks hugging the waterway.

Much of the river has been converted by locks and dams into what essentially are lakes, reducing the number of and severity of floods.

I wonder if a fur trader or American Indian who canoed down the Mississippi 200 years ago still would recognize the river. Do enough landmarks along Iowa's eastern edge retain their appearance from when it was merely wilderness in the French empire?

• • •

The river acted as a barrier in those days. But it didn't keep settlers in search of untried country and dreams from crossing it, usually by ox- or horse-drawn over frozen ice or via ferry.

Judge Eugene Criss, the father of Sac City, was one such man. In the winter of 1855, he left Wisconsin and began a settlement on the North Raccoon River. The spot had the distinct advantage of being able to provide waterpower.

Criss wisely established a hotel, stage station and general store in what one day would become Sac City. A 14 by 17 feet log house, The Criss Hotel was expanded in 1857 to seven rooms. Travelers considered it the best lodgings between Fort Dodge and Sioux City.

• • •

Having breached the mighty Mississippi, many settlers stayed close to water so they could get around. Considering modern cars, ATV's, trains, bicycles and airplanes, their reliance on boats strike me as a bit myopic. But it was practical.

So practical - and myopic - in fact, that during the mid 1800s the state erected a series of locks and dams along the Des Moines River to encourage steamboat travel.

Bentonsport was the site of Lock and Dam No. 6. During its heyday, Bentonsport boasted a population of more than 1,000 as town mills and the tourism industry boomed.

In 1870, the railroad displaced steamboat traffic. By decade's end, a flood knocked Bentonsport dam over. Today, about 40 people reside there.

Many of them rely on a newly created tourism industry that celebrates those Victorian days. The tourists get there by road.

• • •

The railroad, unlike Iowa's diagonal and shallow rivers, could take settlers directly west. And the key to any settlement's success not only was waterpower but if it could boast a railroad stop.

Judge Samuel L. Lorah, was smart enough to see this. When the Audubon branch line of the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Rail-road came near his house, he platted a village. The community, named after him, featured a post office, bank, general store, blacksmith shop, grain elevator and a train station. It largely served area farmers.

The arrival of the Model T and roads gave people a certain independence, however. Train schedules and routes became as restrictive as river depth and bed.

As in so many rural communities, farmers and villagers drove to more populous towns that offered larger product lines and services.

Lorah's last grocery store burned in the 1940s, and the grain elevator was torn down in the 1960s. The town had seen its day.

• • •

Another western Iowa town facing a parallel fate in the mid 20th century was Shelby. The Rock Island Railroad left Shelby after constructing a short cut from Council Bluffs and Atlantic, saving 17 miles of winding route.

Only Shelby's size relative to other rural towns kept it from entirely declining as Lorah had.

In the 1970s, however, Interstate 80 connected Des Moines to Omaha. It passed by Shelby.

These days, travelers take the freeway's exit ramps into town for food, fuel and rest. Visitors stop to see Shelby's famed purple martins, the Carsten's Farm that demonstrates agricultural methods of the 1880s and a park featuring prairie grass.

• • •

I didn't need to drive to the Missouri River on my last trip but did pull off on a freeway ramp into Coralville. As doing so, a jet circled in a holding pattern for the Eastern Iowa Airport while a small Cessna descended for a runway south of Iowa City. The radio newscaster read about when NASA officials thought the space shuttles would be back in orbit.

My wife asked if I intended to use the computer that night.

I shook my head, asked why.

There was a Web site on the Louvre listed in the guidebook, she said. We could do virtual tours of the great museum via the Internet.

She planned to travel the world in the comfort of our own home.

(originally published July 27, 2003)