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)

July 25, 2004

When invaders scrounge through our trash heaps

A desperate struggle is under way at my condominium and it's spilled over to work. In fact, it's probably spread across the city and even Iowa.

Trash can-raiding raccoons are striking.

The other night I spotted a mama raccoon waddling from her den of trees to the overfilled dumpster, a smile across the masked face, her coat shiny from a healthy diet of sweet corn, drumsticks and assorted leftovers we pickier humans find fit to only dispose. Should someone enter the parking lot, she'd learned to duck under cars and hide in a tire's shadow.

Shortly after she'd managed to lift the dumpster lid, her three young ones came scampering behind, more intent on playing with one another in the cool dusk than eating. Well, until they caught a whiff of what the Flanigans had for supper.

That the raccoons feast on our midden doesn't bother me. We humans exercised eminent domain over their perfectly fine wooded home and fields, after all. It only seems fair to offer some payment. In any case, the raccoons are quiet neighbors.

But they don't like to pick up after themselves. Finding a chicken bone or opened Mondo's container on the asphalt each morning isn't appreciated.

But then so aren't cigarette butts and beer cans, sometimes dumped right under the sign that says "No littering. $200 fine."

Gosh, I hope the raccoons haven't picked up some nasty habits now that they're sharing their old home with people.

(originally published July 25, 2004)

July 20, 2004

How to catch a trout near the Lower South Bear

The rising sun broke through the branches as pans banged from my father's scrounging. Hearing my yawn, he turned toward me as I stretched.

"Ready to fish, old man?" he said, grinning.

My eyelids fluttered. "What time is it?" A film of dew covered my sleeping bag.

"Six or so."

"You don't believe in sleeping in?"

"Not when there's fishing to be done."

• • •

We worked our way across the beach then through the thin oak scrub toward the stream. Carrying our bait box, my father took the lead. I yawned every few steps. Perhaps I could sleep after we'd caught and eaten our breakfast.

Then the scrub gave way to the creek's white banks, lined with cattails and a couple of willows. A red-tailed hawk glided overhead. My father stepped gingerly to the stream's edge, scanned it toward a draw then down to its confluence with the Lower South Bear.

"Looks like there's a seam just a little upstream," he said.

I nodded, and we sauntered toward it, bent cattails crackling under our steps. We stopped at the seam, and he squatted to open the bait box.

"Mayflies will get 'em every time," he said, sticking one onto his hook.

I raised an eyebrow. He'd never used mayflies when I was growing up, must have switched to them sometime during the years I'd gone to college, married and moved to another state.

"It's my bait of choice, too," I said.

"Sort of makes you believe in genetics, doesn't it?"

"Or blind luck."

"What's the difference?"

• • •

He swung his rod overhead then whipped it into the creek. It plunked against the water upstream, and he quickly mended the line. The current carried his fly past us, and then I casted.

"They say so much of who we are is decided by our parents," he said after a moment. "I mean here we are, not having gone fishing together all these years, living in completely different parts of the country, and we both use mayflies. You must have got your smarts from me."

I shook my head. "I must have let it slipped once on the phone that I'd taken to using mayflies."

The sun shined warm on our backs as we chuckled. For a moment, I was struck by how it was pure chance if we caught a trout or not. All we were doing was stacking the odds in our favor by using a mayfly and casting the way we did. All that counted was our effort, I supposed.

• • •

"Hemingway used worms, not flies, to catch trout," I said.


"Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway, the writer."

"I've heard of him. Did he write about trout fishing?"

I laughed. "Guess you never read him."

"Can't say I ever did. At least I don't remember reading him."

"Like how you don't re-member that I once said on the phone that mayflies are the best way to catch trout?"

• • •

Suddenly my father's line tightened, and he stripped in part of it then recast downstream.

"Your ma likes to read," he said.

"Maybe that's where I got my smarts."

He shook his head. "Nah. She doesn't fish."

Then, my wrists jerked forward, pulled by a tensing line. A brown trout latched on and - trying to escape - began bending the rod. Its dull, arrow-shaped head yanked against the hook, only deepening the incision. My father grabbed the rod's base, his firm hands fisted between mine. Our combined strengths steadied the pole as I reeled.

Chocolate brown dots covered the trout's back, and it swiveled side to side, tail fin slapping empty air, revealing a canary yellow underbelly. Its length, a good 11 inches, surprised me for a creek.

I stared into its unblinking, terror-filled eyes while holding its head high.

• • •

We hadn't brought a pail (proving my mom was the smarter), so I carried the trout back, my fingers squeezing deep into its body, muck oozing onto my hands.

At camp, my father cut off the head and scales. Slapping the trout in an iron skillet, he dusted it lightly with cornmeal and flour then held the pan over the camp stove.

Butter sizzled about our breakfast.

"Mom should have learned to fish," I said.

(originally published July 20, 2003)

July 18, 2004

County fairs: A chance to ease our minds through nostalgia

A most wonderful season has arrived in Iowa and across the Midwest: County fair time. This weekend there are fairs in Tipton, Marengo, Albia, Avoca, Bedford, Colfax, Eldon, Fort Dodge, Hampton, Harlan, Jefferson, Keosauqua, Knoxville, Leon, Manchester, Marshalltown, Onawa, Osage, Ottumwa, Pocahontas, Primghar, Postville, Sidney, Sigourney, Thompson, Waukon and Winterset. Later this week, nearly two dozen county fairs open, including one in West Liberty.

County fairs hearken back to a seemingly simpler time, to when the state was more rural than urban. They offer a nostalgic escape, to when 4-H blue ribbons marked an honor one notch below being elected mayor and the local National Guard unit actually used the artillery gun displays.

That's not how fairs were meant to be, though.

Back in the days when the Model T and its varying offspring were the way to get around, county fairs served as a showcase of the extreme and exotic: Carnival rides that no one ever would go on again until the fair returned the next year, sideshows of sword-eating men and the world's fattest lady, displays of the best cattle and biggest pumpkins, pie eating contests.

Oh, those things still exist, of course. But we've all taken trips to an Adventureland or Six Flags, and their rides make a county fair midway look quaint. Sideshows have turned politically correct; it's no longer acceptable to gawk at someone who's obese. Selective breeding and genetic modifications make everyone's livestock and crops healthy and large by yesterday's standards. And many of today's kids play solitaire versions of pie-eating contests every day in front of the television.

Still, all of us enjoy a fair. There is that sense of awe among children, to whom everything is new. And for adults, the county fair provides a return to when we were young at heart and in body.


To many in Iowa and across the Midwest, that youth meant growing up on a farm. The unceasing labor and isolation rural life demanded elevated the county fair's escapist value - riding the Ferris wheel to heights never climbed, seeing people from communities rarely ventured to (always a plus for teenagers), witnessing a menagerie of animals from a range of species and breeds. The county fair held the allure of Christmas, except in this instance you were reduced to the toys' size and interacted with them on their level.

During these grand weeks of mid-July when citified Iowans attend fairs, a longing grows for those days when one could be awed by what seem today like trivialities. Call it a symptom of being inundated by the entertainment that modern technology offers: dozens of cable channels that can take you to Australia, ancient Rome or the center of the galaxy 24-hous a days; computer video games that let you steal cars without worry of ever being arrested; video cell phones so we also can see the latest freeway collision that your friend is witnessing.

We're addicted to the exotic these days, needing something new before we have a chance to get bored. Like the junkie, though, we don't always admit our addiction.

But on occasion we also get the urge to back away from our entertainment fix, to find relief. Life slows as we pass the fields of corn waving in the gentle summer breeze. We are taken back to a time for which the the future has little room.

Nostalgia, in its sugar coating of the past's bitter edges, provides the ultimate detoxicant. It's the time when the carousel's slow spin and dainty horses allows us to relax, when we can feel the simple joy of a rabbit's or lamb's hot breath on our palms as we feed it at the petting zoo, when the pleasure of a tutti fruiti snow cone is enough to remind us that just being alive is good.

(originally published July 18, 2004)

July 13, 2004

Lessons from the grasshopper that never were told

In the Midwest, we often see summer as a time "in between": The greening of corn as it rises between planting and harvesting, the short season of sun couched between spring and fall's cooler days, the days for romance until one returns to school.

"Summer is a promissory note signed in June," wrote Nebraskan-born outdoors writer Hal Borland, "its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January."

As a lush green covers the Johnson County's plains and we idle our nights away in the warmth, I suggest that summer also is a time of discovery, a time for growth. It is not a long, lost weekend.

• • •

If one image beyond sunshine is entwined with summer, it is being out of school. Once the textbooks have been handed in and the report cards sent home, for some the real learning begins. Oh, most certainly book learning is important, and our society does greatly underestimate it. But perhaps the most important lessons of life come when we walk dusty country roads or lakeside trails, places where the best opportunities to sharpen our observations are provided.

When a boy, I'd sometimes amble along the dirt road leading past the cornfields, discovering deer prints left the night before in the soft soil or the butterflies whose patterned wings rival in beauty any painting to come from an artist's palette.

On occasion, I'd stretch out in the field left unseeded that year by my father and watch the panorama of clouds reshape themselves across the brilliant blue sky. In the meadow, all seemed far away: the thumb-sized farmhouse, a distant tractor's drone, the tufts of clouds suspended upon the horizon.

Out there it was a whole new world, and if you fell into the prickle of extremely tall grass, a truly unique one as well: One in which the insects grew in size as they flicked past you, the buzz of their wings a high-pitched whine; in which the smell of loam, of plants decayed and of plants growing from such death, surrounded you; in which the minute taste of salt swathed across the inside of your mouth actually could be sensed now that you were not bombarded by a million other distractions competing for your attention.

• • •

Too often, we don't bother to see what is around us. Loaded with responsibilities, we do in summer exactly what we do the rest of the year: Wash dishes, write our term papers, fold our laundry.

We live by the words of Hesiod, that great Greek didactic poet: "It will not always be summer: build barns."

But consider there is as great a chance the barn will be built as there is some freak accident will blind us.

Sightless Helen Keller once challenged readers, "If you could see for just 24 hours, what would you choose (to look at)?"

If you had only 24 hours left to see, would you choose to build the barn?

• • •

When in first grade, I got into trouble with my teacher for disagreeing over the meaning of the Aesop fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper." In that story, grasshopper didn't spend his summer storing food like ant did. When winter came, grasshopper had nothing to eat. The details after that are grim.

"What did the grasshopper do during all of that time?' I asked. "Didn't he read books? Maybe he painted a picture. Didn't he visit his friends and family?"

"He didn't do any of that," my teacher said. "He did nothing all summer."

"Nothing? That's impossible. He must have done something."

"No, he did nothing at all."

If my teacher was right, then grasshopper's death was irrelevant. After all, if you do absolutely nothing, you're as good as dead anyway.

But nobody does "nothing." And who's to judge when idleness is a waste of time? The discovery of fire, after all, must have came about by someone idling observing how flames spread.

• • •

This is not to say hard work doesn't have its place or offer its own pleasures. After seeing how fire leaps from branch to branch, the tricky part is breaking off a lit bough then containing it in a pit. But idly enjoying the fruits of such labors then becomes the reward.

• • •

But should the summer be spent only building barns or storing food? Doesn't one first need to imagine a barn and all of its possibilities? And to do that, doesn't one need to be aware of the wider world to fuel the mind?

If idleness leads to reflection, then summer was not wasted. It only was a beginning.

(originally published July 13, 2003)

July 11, 2004

Revisiting 'The Four Seasons' via Iowa

Most of us have long waited for this time of year, when the warm glow of sunlight fills our rooms during the easy pace of a summer morning. A sense of freedom overcomes us, and tossing on sandals, shorts and cut-off tees, we head outside. There's a jangle in the air as the breeze rustles across the trees.

The day shines with green - lush grasses, trees and shrubs filled out with leaves, the larkspur and pink roses abloom - as we walk along the nearby stream. The corn's long leaves cover a neighboring field, and dragonflies dodge about. We pause at a bank along the stream, dip our feet into cool water, gorge ourselves on wild berries picked along the way.

The noon sun bequeaths us warm tanned skin. There is no sign of a summer storm approaching, no threatening west wind, and so we sway slowly in a hammock under the shade of tall oak trees, a fat novel in our hands. The distant whack of a bat against a ball and the sudden excited cheers as children urge their teammate around the bases punctuates our reading. Then quiet returns in ever-longer pauses. The scent of cucumbers and melon fill the air. We fall asleep.

Hours later, we awake to crickets chirping, the stars above us like Italian lights festooned upon a ceiling. In the lazy heat, we believe summer will last forever.


Many of us most wish for summer during January's dark hours, when the lack of light compresses our days. Awakening, a shiver overcomes us; time to turn the heat up despite the bills. It'll only be for a few moments as we slip on thick Fair Isle crew socks, jeans, sweaters and heavy coats. No more than a few steps outside, we sniffle as our noses drip.

The clouds hang dense and white, as if snow cap-ped mounds were turned upside down and placed in the sky. Naked trees dot the landscape; a few stalks of yellowed corn still stand in the fields. A cardinal lands upon the snow, its red cheer breaking the dreariness. But even that must pass, and it's back to icicles upon everything that is man-made - the metal of a drain pipe, a street sign, a mailbox. We ignore them as the icy path requires concentration lest we trip and fall.

There is no time to stop; in the cold everything is far away, and the fingers are growing numb. The weatherman spoke of a blizzard covering half of Nebraska heading our way. The trees where our hammock once hung now helps prop up a snow fence; if we are to read books, it must be inside, out of the ground's bright glare and the freezing wind. A gaggle of children pass, kicking snow; dressed in snow pants and down coat, they look like they're in radiation suits. We stamp our feet to stay warm.

Once finally home, the heat warms our hands as we pull off our scarves. Snow has crystallized on the window, acts as a wall. You check the calendar; this cold can't last forever.


Mother Nature does provide us with fair warning of winter. In autumn, the morning sun weakens, casts a light the color of white wine. Outside, the mix of yellow and green leaves shifts day by day to barn red and hunter orange. We might start the day off in shorts and T-shirt, only to see wind pick up and turn the air cold. Despite the gusts blowing leaves in short bursts, we gamble on warmth.

Golden September has decorated our landscape with color as dry leaves crunch under our feet. We spy migrating birds feeding on black-eyed Susans. In the fields beyond, farmers run a combine through the rows, shearing each corn stalk from the Earth. Geese squawk overhead - are they the same geese we saw last autumn when walking this path? They pass, and we cross the knoll that rises above the stream, whose water is too cool now for even dipping one's feet. The scent of orange cloves and cider floats upon the air.

We're glad we each tied a sweatshirt around our waists as the sky above has grayed. "It'll be cold enough tonight for frost," you remark. The grass between the trees where our hammock still hangs has turned brittle, and I nod, wondering how many of our autumns have been filled with schoolbooks and missed afternoons outdoors. The "hut-hut" of a touch football game children at the park have started echoes across the horizon. The dry and whispery autumn leaves swirl, sound like a gourd rattle.

We pause on a bench, hands tucked under our sweatshirts, refusing to let summer go. A woman in an oversized plaid blazer, lugging a basket of orchard apples, passes with her toddler, who presses an oversized pumpkin to his chest. All the world is aging.


Winter yields reluctantly to spring. When the youthful season does arrive, we awake with a yearning, the blue skies outside beckoning. We're smart enough to stay in jeans but don short-sleeved cotton sweaters, ready to believe that the winter coat finally can be stored away. Once out the door, the first gentle breeze does not disappoint.

Vivaldi was right; spring is a pastoral dance, for as the weather warms, the pace quickens. Walking, we sense the hidden life beneath the flattened grass; for now, the apple and magnolia blossoms are enough to delight. The farmer has turned the black furrows of last year's cornfield for a new season, and the returning birds celebrate their homecoming with a carnival of chatter. Streams murmur once more from the melt off. "Maybe it'll get warm enough for ice cream," you say.

With the snow gone and the flora only coming out of dormancy, the Iowa plain is open wide. Spring showers predicted for later today, I note, but for now, though, there's only an ever-strengthening sun. The buds are opening on the oaks, you say, then spy a robin's nest in one of the branches. You're thinking of picking up that book of poetry left unread all winter. Ahead of us, children deliberately jump into puddles, spraying water across the path. There's an earthy moistness in the air, a scent that winter's snow and summer's growth always locks away.

Passing a bench, we keep walking. Our legs are tired after a winter of being cooped up, but the walk feels good on the lungs. At the pond, the fountain has been turned back on, and a sense that all which was gone will come alive again fills us.

It is spring, and Death has become a beggar.

(originally published July 11, 2004)

July 06, 2004

Haunted locales and mid-summer practical jokes

By the third night of summer camp, Jimmy Moore had convinced us we should look for the secret haunted mine.

As the crickets chirped outside our wood cabin - the little blockhouses looked like small army barracks painted brown - we lay in bed listening to Jimmy's tale. A cave-in buried a miner alive several years before; rather than dig out his body, the company closed the mine. His angry ghost roamed the tunnels, waiting for his comrades to return.

A half-moon shined over the jackpines, bathing the cabin's interior in a bluish glow.

"It's not far from here," Jimmy said. "We walked by it yesterday on our hike. Look, we don't want to be boring like those guys in Alpha Quad."

"What if we get caught?" said Joey Durham, the youngest in our cabin of 10-year-olds.

"They'll never know that we left," Jimmy said.

"Which means they'll never know where to look should the ghost get us," I said.

Joey pulled the wool blanket over his face.

• • •

Though most think of Halloween as the time to search for spirits, much hunting occurs in summer. It's simply a matter of being warm.

And as the summer's heat melts us into sluggish creatures during day, the relative coolness of night reinvigorates our senses. Take a drive by Iowa City's Oakland Cemetery this month, for example, and you'll probably find someone looking for the Black Angel's spirit.

According to one legend, the ghost can be seen as a glowing shape walking through the cemetery. She watches people who approach the statue of the Black Angel, an 8-1/2 foot high copper monument that since has darkened. With the Black Angel is a smaller statue of a girl set upon a column. If you walk near the girl, she will stare at someone in your group until you leave.

• • •

We slipped quietly into the woods behind our cabin, careful not to stampede through the weeds and bushes lest the camp counselors hear us. Once we were far enough away so the cabins' silhouettes no longer could be seen in the moon glow, Joey snapped on his flashlight.

"Turn that off!" Jimmy hissed.

"I can't see where I'm walking," Joey said.

"If you leave that on, you'll scare off the ghost."

"Maybe that's his plan," I said.

• • •

Oakland Cemetery isn't Iowa City's only haunted spot. You also might see people staring up at the fourth floor of Currier Hall on a warm summer night.

According to one tale, three dorm mates fell in love with the same man at the University of Iowa and committed a triple suicide. Whenever roommates in Currier Hall argue, the victims' spirits now appear to encourage friendship.

In a variation of the myth, a stern-faced older man haunts the E300 section. He allegedly is the father of a former Currier Hall tenant.

• • •

What does this ghost look like?" Joe said.

"Like a miner," Jimmy responded. "He stands six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five. Kinda broad at the shoulder."

I suppressed a laugh. "And narrow at the hip, right?"

Jimmy elbowed me in the ribs.

And then a twig snapped.

Except it wasn't from any one of us.

• • •

North Liberty also has a haunted cemetery. Though no one has been buried at Green Castles for years, people visiting it on balmy nights often report freshly dug dirt around many of the stones.

Some even have seen a witch in black with long dark hair. Appearing to be about 17 years old, she talks to young children.

• • •

"What was that?" Joey said.

"Just a deer," Jimmy said, "walking the woods."

"Don't they sleep at night?"

"Maybe it was a wolf," I said.

• • •

Despite the famous horror movie, not many Iowa cornfields are haunted. The closest is in New Providence near Reece Park.

A young woman allegedly killed herself in the field. Some nights you can hear her screaming.

• • •

Northern Minnesota's jackpines rise far taller than corn. Walking beneath them, the boughs block all moonlight. Catching sight of eyes staring upon you is difficult.

But as your neck prickles, you can feel something is out there.

When something grabbed our ankles, we screamed, then while trying to run, tripped, skinning our arms and chins.

My hand fell on Joey's flashlight. Flicking it on, I swung the cone of light over four pairs of eyes. They rose, laughing.

It was Alpha Quad.

• • •

And how many in Oakland Cemetery have been creeped out by another pair of kids lurking behind a tombstone, deciding since they saw nothing to pull a prank of their own? Or to crouch amid the stalks and scream at the unsuspecting in Reece Park?

Should you decide to find out this summer, just be sure to keep your flashlight on at all times. And make sure you let someone know where you've gone - just in case.

(originally published July 6, 2003)

July 04, 2004

Leaving the old work for school in our Information Age

We shouldn't think about school in summertime, I suppose. July marks those warm, lazy days when book learning is set aside for a trip to the pool, ice cream in midafternoon and chasing fireflies with no worries of being tired during tomorrow's math class.

But these days, school doesn't go away just be-cause the calendar says Memorial Day has passed. Sure, there's a respite, but more and more teachers and child experts urge that each summer with the young ones we do some "educational" things - like going to a museum, thinking creatively or reading, though I have difficulty imagining why anyone wouldn't pick up a book every day. Maybe some are too excited about the pool and can't concentrate.

Many teachers spend their summers at the opposite end of the classroom: in the learners' seat. They're busy working on advanced degrees or taking courses to maintain licenses. Much of their work focuses on honing skills, particularly writing lesson plans. And most are not about to let their hours go wasted; tomorrow's classwork is being written today.

Some teachers, children and college students haven't even left the classroom. They're enjoying summer school, in the students' case probably because they didn't do the work last year. A lucky few, however, enjoy teaching and sitting in the one course they most like - creative writing, science discovery, a musical instrument. That says something about the power of education: Many are willing to give up vacation for schooling they enjoy.


Iowa is thought of as an agricultural state, and there's no denying the im-port of corn swaying in the field as our heritage or yet today. But type "Iowa" into a Google search engine, and you'll make a remarkable discovery: Of the 10 Web sites that have received the most hits, education leads.

Topping the list is the state's official Web site, though the most hit page on it is for the Department of Education. The University of Iowa comes in second with Ames' and Cedar Falls' campuses close behind. The university's "Virtual Hospital" for learning about health issues is No. 6. The Web site for the General Assembly, whose members could use some school themselves, is No. 9.

But there are no sites specifically about farming.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that the governor decided to put a pioneer schoolhouse rather than a cow and hog on our state quarter.


These days, a lot of Iowa farmers are heading back to school. So are their former classmates who stayed in small rural towns and work-ed in manufacturing. Both industries are contracting, and to feed one's family in this world, you've got to learn new skills, usually involving computers.

Some remark that this parallels the Industrial Revolution, when farm laborers left the land for factory jobs, creating a massive upheaval in society. The primarily rural order suddenly became urban, and sociologists and historians have vividly described the downsides of this shift.

Yet now it's not just the remaining farmers but the factory worker as well who's forced to leave his or her occupation. What effect will this shift have on people when our hands no longer work the earth or metal but bits of electronic data as we transform into an information society?

It will run deep.

After all, the basis for our agrarian society's morals and visions form the basis of our metropolitan society's values and dreams. Perhaps the shift to manufacturing simply is one phase of urbanization, as the Triassic simply was one period in the Mesozoic.

It's something to ponder on the way to the pool.

(originally published July 4, 2004)