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)