March 30, 2005

Deadly tornadoes challenge our strength of will

Now is the time to get ready for 7:30 p.m. June 9.

That's the midpoint of Iowa's tornado season, which begins this week. Though tornadoes have been recorded for every month in Iowa, their numbers pick up in April as currents of warm and cool air clash across the spring prairie. During the last 102 years, the month of May has seen 593 tornadoes and June 639; the number slips in July to less than half that number.

Tornadoes also like to strike in the early evening. Half of all recorded tornadoes occur between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.

But tornadoes are more than numbers, even in this day of advanced warning systems and buildings constructed from steel. For as the sky grows deathly green and utterly still, we always glance upward, our hearts beating as we wonder what the next few minutes hold.

It's a moment when we realize we're not entirely in control of our fate.

• • •

Survivors of the 1882 Grinnell tornado, the state's second deadliest twister, recalled the beginning of their storm with vivid detail.

"An hour or more before sunset, the northern sky was hung with conical, downward-pointing clouds, the like of which none of us had ever seen," the local newspaper wrote a few days following the June 17 storm. "After sunset, and even after darkness was gathering, the western sky half way to the zenith was lurid and brilliant and unearthly - an ominous sight which fascinated while it filled one with ill-dread.

"Almost ere the brilliant apparition in the west had disappeared the storm broke. It was accompanied with a roaring like thunder, or perhaps more like rumbling of a dozen heavy freight trains. Chimneys, trees, houses, barns began to fly like leaves. People took to their cellars."

A hundred people died in the storm.

• • •

These days, death from a tornado occurs about once every other year in Iowa. Armed with radios and televisions and storm sirens, people usually can find cover quickly enough.

But sometimes the tornado still surprises us.

Not so long ago, on May 15, 1968, a Charles City woman went to pick up her husband at work. As she reached his parking lot, a man jumped into her car and hollered that she was driving right into a tornado.

Looking up, she saw only a massive black wave roaring toward her.

It was an F5 tornado, the "finger of the God," twisters that are blocks-wide with speeds topping 260 miles per hour.

The tornado lifted her car 15 feet into the air and held it suspended there for several terrifying seconds before setting it back down. Though none of the windows were broken, all four tires had popped. Thirteen people died in the storm, the last time an F5 struck Iowa.

Today, people in Charles City regard the tornado with a tinge of gallows humor. They have to - the twister damaged all of the town's churches but left the bars unscathed.

• • •

Fate has a way of catching us in its whirlwind. We can resist it for a while, but eat the right foods, avoid cigarettes or exercise regularly and the cancer gene's tidal forces still will swirl us away. Or an accident blasts our loved ones and us un-awares, reminding us that we cannot escape. But resistance remains important. Without it, there is no ad-vancement, no progress, only resignation. And without hope, we no longer are human.

• • •

The deadliest twister Io-wa ever saw occurred more than 140 years ago: the Comanche tornado of June 3, 1860.

It tore half way across the state, starting at 2 p.m., not ending until after midnight, sometimes rising into the air and sparing entire towns as it did with Cedar Rapids, but still killing 134 people in its path.

South of Eldora, the tornado utterly destroyed two homes. As one newspaper of the time reported, "The very corn growing in the fields is torn out by the roots, and the ground looks as though the locusts of Egypt had made a devouring march through the country."

The carcasses of livestock lay strewn across the field. A mother died, and two children were so crushed that their features were beyond recognition.

"To look at the ruins of the two houses," the newspaper reported, "one would suppose that it was an utter impossibility for a single individual to escape a certain and terrible death."

And yet, out of 13 people who were inside, seven lived.

They mourned the loss of their loved ones. And they picked up the debris and rebuilt their homes.

They had to. It was the only way to maintain their dignity and strength.

(originally published March 30, 2003)

March 28, 2005

What if you spent 70 days a year in a vast wasteland?

Many years ago I attended a modern art exhibit that featured the same videotape played on a series of televisions, except each set was from a different era. The image on the 1950s black and white appeared blurry, especially along the screen's edges; the early 1960s black and white offered a crisper picture; the late 1960s color set returned to the blur standard, though not at the edges; the 1970s color eliminated all haziness; the 1980s color set was smaller.

And while seeing each incremental technological ad-vance intrigued me, as noticing the soap opera video playing I couldn't help but think that for the most part, there just isn't much on television worth watching.


That the first color televisions rolled off the assembly line 50 years ago as spring began certainly is ironic. Stuck inside during winter's gray skies and harsh cold, television is almost a meaningful entertainment option. But during spring, when the world comes alive with green grass, flower blooms and even rainbows, there hardly seems a reason to sit inside.

And yet we do. The average American spends 70 entire days out of a year watching television. Seventy days!

Just what are we watching?


What did people do before there was television?

I'm just "young" enough to never have lived in a time when there wasn't television. Sort of like today's infants, who will grow up in a world that always has had the Internet.

Among my parents' prize purchases during my preschool years was their first color television set. Like the rest of America, they were transitioning from black and white to living color. It cost them more than $300, which was a much greater percentage of one's income in 1967 dollars than 2004 dollars.

But the neighbors marveled. Until they got their own - one step above ours.

Not that there was much to watch back then. Just three networks and maybe an independent station, if you were lucky. Then public television hit the airwaves.

And what shows were on? CBS was the hick network in the 1960s with "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres." ABC was the edgy WB of its time, which meant there wasn't anything worth watching. There were a lot of westerns that followed the same plot every week on every program. Ditto for cop shows from the 1970s, then ABC got jiggly with "Charlie's Angels."


Though television still remains a wasteland, I'd never advocate removing it from the home. Major news events - man stepping on the moon, the hostages returning home from Iran, the Challenger explosion, the World Trade Center towers collapsing - all carry more impact in pictures than words, especially if seen live.

And there is exceptional theater, such as PBS's "I, Claudius," or documentaries where the visual imagery better expresses a concept than words, such as Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."

Television even can be a bonding experience between the generations - say parent and child enjoying "A Charlie Brown Christmas Special" together.


But could that 70 days a year in front of the television be more meaningfully spent with family and neighbors?

How many great books have gone unread because television provided an easy, lowest common denominator storyline?

How often have we forsaken a simple walk into the great outdoors, pulling in lungfuls of fresh air as the sun's warmth danced across our skin, and heard songbirds share their tunes as we caught a glimpse of a rabbit or white-tailed deer scurrying into the cornfield or underbrush?

(originally published March 28, 2004)

March 27, 2005

It's not 'How will the world end?' but 'How will we live today?'

On this day that Christians around the world celebrate resurrection, I find myself thinking of an old Robert Frost poem, "Fire and Ice." "Some say the world will end in fire,/ Some say in ice," the poem begins, but it's less about apocalypse than the here and now.

What provokes such thoughts is my coming across, as watching the snow fall earlier this week, a picture of a devastating fire in Linn Grove that occurred today in 1911.

You can't see the faces of Linn Grove residents in the picture, but you know there's a sense of stupefaction upon them. It's the way they mull about the smoldering ruins of what were five or six buildings, as if bystanders at a fatal car accident. I imagine them numbed by the destruction and trying to make sense of what happened.

Fire long has been an enemy. Prairie fires frequently swept across Iowa's pioneer farms and settlements. One settler, recalling those early days of our state's history, wrote that families always slept "with one eye open" until winter's first snow.


Perhaps it's the sudden freedom spring's warmth brings that causes us to toss caution to the wind as if it were so many sparks. I remember from childhood a young couple that like so many of their ancestors before them started a farm. As always, it was hard labor, sweat and much sacrifice. But each year the corn grew tall.

One spring, though, the husband began an affair with a woman from a nearby town. Perhaps they were happier together; I know too little to judge them.

But I do know the results. The wife left with the children. The divorce forced the sale of the farm. Many ashes were left.

As Frost wrote, "From what I've tasted of desire/I hold with those who favor fire."


There's a strong argument to be made for the world ending in ice, though.

Iowans living through the Black Blizzard of Jan. 12, 1888, which covered the state and left dozens of people dead, certainly would have thought so. Myra Hamann was 11 when the blizzard hit, and later wrote: "Around 4:30 p.m. the Black Blizzard arrived with unpredicted speed and violence. Enormous amounts of snow and dust, driven by winds up to hurricane velocity, created an instant blackout. The temperature began dipping to subzero marks. The lowest reading for the Hawkeye State stood at 42 degrees below, observers noted. The storm pounded Hohenzollern most of the night, piling snowdrifts estimated at 15 feet deep, which remained until the spring thaws set in.

"The morning of Jan. 13, 1888, brought sunshine and bright blue skies. The wind was calm but the bitter cold held its grip for sometime."

Then there's the famous Armistice Day Storm of 1940. Blinding snow, driven by 50-80 mph winds, covered three entire states. Thousands of pasturing cattle perished in Iowa; 154 people died across the Midwest.

Even today an ice storm minus the winds and snow paralyzes. With so many de-pendent on electricity for heat and clean roads for our groceries, downed power lines and glazed streets can leave us in a condition that's arguably little better than our pioneer ancestors.


Some men never need to leave their houses to destroy themselves. I think of another neighbor from childhood, a bitter elderly man whose only real companion was his farm dog.

He could have his moments of kindness, but most thought it best not to encourage them the few times he did come to town. He might then converse with you, and that inevitably meant listening to his tirade of how Jews controlled the economy, of how African-Americans were parasites on the system.

Most thought it was best to stay out of his way as he moved slowly about, his face perpetually glowering, but I sometimes wonder if that was the wisest choice. As after a blizzard, was it not best to dig out and lend one another a helping hand until warmth returned?

And Frost's poem does conclude, "... I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice."


No, there is nothing ironic about thinking of "Fire and Ice" this last weekend in March.

For today really is less about the past or the end of the world - it's about the rebirth that occurs in our lives when we choose to live with desires in check and with our hate vanquished.

(originally published March 27, 2005)

March 23, 2005

We can change our world — just ask Iowa’s veterans

I laugh at those who say a lone person can not change the world.

True, the complexity of world problems is so great that each of us often feel caught in an immense knot that cannot be loosened. And yet, a simple look at any of our family histories will show several ancestors who opted to unravel the string rather than succumb to the tangle.

In my own family are tales of immigration to avoid starvation, of surviving ocean storms, of breaking furrows across an untamed land that has become the most powerful nation on Earth. These stories are not uncommon in any American family. They simply are all too often forgotten.

That perhaps is the strongest argument for learning history - and I don't mean just the dates and politicians' names listed in textbooks. We must know our past to give us strength for the future.

• • •

Iowan shoe salesman William Underhill is one such example. When World War II broke out, Underhill became a bombardier and a member of the 15th Army Air Corps in southern Italy. He flew an incredible 50 missions.

But he tempted fate one too many times. On Underhill's last mission, his crew was shot down behind enemy lines.

He did not give up. With the help of the Polish underground, he avoided capture. After the war, he became chairman of Iowa State University's speech department.

When lost in a hostile, foreign land, he must have learned something about the importance of communication.

• • •

Somehow, despite many different periods of military service, most of my family always missed war. My brother and I, both Army veterans of the 1980s, didn't go to Gulf War I. During the height of the Vietnam War, a drafted uncle instead sat in Korea. The month the Civil War ended, a great-great-great grandfather was conscripted and spent the next several weeks guarding railroad tracks in eastern Kansas.

I am not disappointed by this lack of heroic, wartime military service. Each of us were, in a sense, a victim of time and perhaps good luck.

Many others were not so fortunate.

• • •

Iowa's famous Sullivan Brothers are one such example. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, all five of the Waterloo natives enlisted on the same day. As two of them previously had served in the Navy, they hit the seven seas together; with a little pleading and cajoling, they were assigned to the same ship, the U.S.S. Juneau.

In November 1942, the Juneau went down in the South Pacific. Four of the brothers died in the initial explosion that sunk the ship. The fifth, despite being wounded the night before, made it onto a raft where he survived for five days before succumbing to the ocean waters.

The Navy's notification to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Sullivan that all five of their sons were missing in action has become legendary. Many now incorrectly believe there is a "Sullivan Act" that prevents brothers from serving on the same ship or in the same unit. Congress never has passed such an act, nor has any president ever signed such an executive order.

But the deaths of those five courageous brothers still reverberates in our collective mythology about war.

• • •

The most heroic act many of our ancestors performed was persisting. Their unrelenting labor and simple acts of kindness along the way allowed families, armies and nations to flourish.

I think here of my great uncle, a simple man who served as a foot soldier in Patton's Third Army while it crossed France in 1944-45. Though involved in firefights, he never was injured. He never single-handedly overran any machine gun nests. He never captured 21 Germans with an unloaded pistol.

When asked about the war, he will say his strongest memories are of the shared camaraderie felt with those in his company. The image that stands out the most for him, though, came after his unit helped break through German lines during the Battle of the Bulge. Upon relieving the besieged Americans, he offered his canteen to a soldier who hadn't had fresh water to drink in two days.

My uncle said he will never forget the look of gratitude in that man's eyes as handing the canteen to him.

That look must have made an impact. Years later, he took my orphaned mother into his home and raised her as if she were his own daughter.

And once, as a child while walking along a cornfield with him to see if we could spot pheasants, I called him "grandfather."

• • •

There are many others who touch lives simply through their kindness and their perseverance.

Iowan Ruth Miller was in nurse's training in 1941. Upon finishing, she joined the Army, and throughout the last year of the war in Europe, served just behind the front lines in France and Germany.

Ames native James Bowman volunteered for the Army Air Corps and went on to become a Tuskegee Airman. His service in the African-American corps of fighter pilots helped break down barriers against minorities in the armed services.

Neither Miller nor Bow-man were heroes in the John Wayne sense of the term. But I suspect many men across America were long thankful of Miller's care and many African-Americans looked up to Bowman and his fellow airmen for challenging prejudice.

They made a difference simply by refusing to give in when the knot appeared as if it could not be untied.

They are our truest heroes.

(originally published March 23, 2003)

March 22, 2005

Iowa’s greatest hero offers hope from our imaginations

Note: This piece originally was published in May

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

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

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

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

And Main should be taken seriously. He's developed software that will help you calculate stardates for any day (

• • •

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

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

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

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

Somehow I think Jim Kirk was, too.

• • •

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

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

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

But in the starry sky, the lights are many.

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

James Kirk Facts
• Name: James T. Kirk
• Serial Number: SC937-0176 CEC
• Date of birth: March 22 (or May 7), 2233
• Place of birth: Riverside, Iowa, Earth
• Heroes: Abraham Lincoln, Captain Garth

(originally published May 18, 2003)

March 21, 2005

Iowa offered Laura Ingall's family chance to survive

There's something about spring that gets me thinking of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe it's the anticipation of blooming wildflowers like those that she and her sisters run through in the opening sequence of "Little House on the Prairie." Or maybe it's that my ancestors settled only a few miles from the house in the big woods that the Ingalls later left, just before the spring thaw.

Mostly we think of Laura living in Walnut Grove, Minn. But she spent time as well in Iowa, near Burr Oak. It's known as her "missing years," because she rarely wrote about that time.


There's good reason for Laura to not have spent any ink on those days. In the summer of 1876, grasshopper plagues wiped out farmers throughout Minnesota. Then the Ingalls' infant boy, Charles Frederick, died.

That fall, as the burr oak leaves yellowed across the Iowa bluff town, the family avoided destitution when a friend offered them a job running the hotel he owned. Ma, Mary and nine-year-old Laura spent most of their time with the daily chores that the hotel demanded - cleaning, cooking, laundering, baby-sitting.

Faced with the financial stress of doctor bills, rent and groceries, the Ingalls sold some of their belongings in Burr Oak. As homesteaders, they'd received free farmland and always had grown or hunted most of their own food.

Crushed by poverty, the excitement of Burr Oak only tormented them. The village served as a major crossroads, with more than 200 covered wagons passing through every day, heading to new lives and opportunities both West and South.


Burr Oak plays a special role, though, in understanding Laura and pioneer times. It's the only one of her childhood homes that remains on its original site.

And in a small brick house, not far from the hotel where the Ingalls toiled, Laura's third sister, Grace, was born the spring after they arrived. Laura's pa, who did not like working in a hotel, became a partner in a grist mill and spent his days grinding crops the farmers brought in from their wheat and corn fields, helping him to earn a few more dollars.

Homesick for the freedom that farm life offered, Charles brought his family back to Walnut Grove soon after.

They'd spent only a year in Iowa. But it allowed them to survive and to regain their footing in an uncertain world.


The Ingalls would return once more to Iowa, again for tragic reasons.

In 1879, after the family had settled in De Smet, S.D., pretty, blonde-haired Mary became severely ill and suffered a stroke. Blindness re-sulted.

Two years later, the Dakota Territory partially paid for Mary to attend the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton. For meals on the trip there, the Ingalls ate fried blackbirds, which that summer had destroyed the family crops. Laura then worked 12 hours a day for a mere 25 cents basting shirts to help pay her sister's tuition.

Though harsh by today's standards - the 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. school day was rigidly structured and spills during mealtime were met with punishment - many considered the facility progressive. It was co-ed, and corporal punishment was prohibited.

Mary excelled in music and even earned a perfect mark in "deportment," or conduct. But financial strains and bouts with illness hurt Mary's marks and even kept her out of classes for some time. She finally graduated in 1889 at the age of 24.


Laura's life as presented in "Little House on the Prairie" wasn't all that close to reality. A few episodes - the premiere when the Ingalls leave Wisconsin for Kansas and the episode in which she and Almanzo marry - are fairly accurate. But Laura's tales couldn't easily be stretched into 200 hour-long episodes.

Indeed, Laura didn't have a brother named Albert. And when Mary returned from the Iowa School for the Blind, she never married or had a child.

But fictionalization didn't damage the series' value or quality, for the show remain-ed true to the lessons and themes of Laura's books.

Ironically, of the few episodes that recounts a real incident - "The Lord is My Shepherd," about the birth and death of Charles Frederick before the Ingalls come to Iowa - was one Laura chose to never write about.

(originally published March 21, 2004)

March 20, 2005

When spring's first flower blossoms

There's something sweet in spying the first spring flower upon a meadow or beside a cornfield as taking a quiet walk. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with greenhouse-grown flowers. But when the first prairie phlox or April violets with their heart-shaped leaves emerge, we can be certain that gaunt and gray winter is behind us.

And a flower that rises from the Earth's pungent soil, like dawn's first glow or the smile on a face, only brightens its bed of sallow grass.

Close to this time last year while ambling along the Iowa River, I came across spring's first violet. My hand thrust down to pluck it, so I might bring it back to my wife as a token of affection, as a symbol that its beauty and hope re-minded me of her during my walk alone.

But as my fingers curled around the petals' base, I paused, stuck in a minor Hamlet moment.

Pull the flower, I told my-self, and I deny someone else who later might come this way a flash of beauty. Pull the flower, and a bee loses a meal. Pull the flower, and fewer bloom next spring. "Sweets to the sweet" but at whose expense?

Perhaps if it had been a meadow full of blooms rather than a single blossom, the problem would not cause such affliction

But the desire to show affection ran deep, and even my wife had more than once gently advised me to not overthink a situation.

I sighed. If "overthinking" isn't my nature because we do not possess such a thing, I still was perfectly satisfied choosing it as a way of life.

So my hand withdrew, and I walked on, deciding to change my course.

The greenhouse would not be too far out of my way.

(Originally published March 20, 2005, as "A decision when spring's first flower blossoms")

March 17, 2005

Irish in America offer temperament for all to live by

There's something special about the Irish in America, which probably explains why so many celebrate St. Patrick's Day as if it were a holiday.

Some say it's a good reason to drink, and if you're going to drink, it might as well be with someone who knows how, like an Irishman. An Irishman would say being Irish is a good reason indeed to drink.

And that fatalistic attitude is what makes the Irish so great. Should it come as any surprise that Murphy's law - "What ever can go wrong will go wrong" - was devised by Murphy and not an Alberti or a Honecker?

Or as playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote: "An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy."

• • •

The Irish were among the first Europeans in Iowa. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, entire families came.

A promise of possibility lured many of these immigrants to the frontier. An 1841 edition of the Philadelphia Catholic Herald proclaimed Iowa "The Garden of America" and "The Eldorado of the West," a place where land could be bought for $4 an acre, making frontier life worth the travails.

Over the next several decades, tens of thousands of Irish came to Iowa. They dug lead from mines and plowed the prairie earth into furrows.

And for the mere opportunity to feed themselves, many paid in blood. James Donahoe and his wife, Ann, both born in Ireland, came to Pocahontas County in 1856. Two of their children died from disease. One boy was found shortly after he returned from the grasslands checking traps set to catch prairie chickens.

Such suffering has led the Irish to be a practical people in America. A case in point, this Irish proverb: "A lock is better than suspicion."

• • •

Being of English and Scottish descent, as a kid I got along better with classmates who had Irish surnames than those boasting a German or an Italian heritage. The Yoders and Roccas of my farm town tended to be bullies.

But the Doyles and Quinns had good-natured heads on them that acquiesced to practicality, yet yielded a sense of humor when well-laid plans just didn't work. Or as the sofa pillow little Jimmy Doyle's mother had embroidered said, "A silent mouth is melodious." But then she did have nine kids.

Of course, ethnic stereotypes are merely that; there are many good Germans and Italians and any number of rotten Irishmen. But I like to think there are certain characteristics passed through a family (my wife and my mother both agree that all Bignells are bullheaded, for example). Perhaps there is some quality in my family line that connects well with the kind of Irish families who settled the Midwest.

My great-great-great-great-grandmother, Martha, immigrated to North America from England with her husband, George Bignell Sr. When he died in his early 40s, leaving her with eight children to care for, she remarried within a year. The new husband was Irish. They had six more children and lived four decades together.

What attracted Martha to George also must have attracted her to the Irish immigrant who became her husband. And for better or for worse, part of Martha's genes are mine.

An Irishman would say "for worse," but he'd be grinning as well.

• • •

The Irish had to be tenacious in Iowa.

In 1856, John Rourke, James Maher, Patrick Conlan and other Irish settled in Island Grove, a village in Emmet County. A gang of outlaws lived on Island Grove's southside. Disguised as Indians, they frequently raided the homes of these early Irish settlers. One day, Patrick Conlan was among those from whom goods were stolen.

With only his revolver, he forced them to return his belongings.

The outlaws left the area soon thereafter.

• • •

The Irish ought to be bitter people. Because most practiced Catholicism, they were much reviled in our nation's early, Puritan days.

One fatherless Irish family immigrated to western Iowa during the Civil War from Ireland's County Westmeath. Five young adult children accompanied the mother. As traveling, the oldest son was killed, merely because he was Catholic. After that, at least one of the family members stayed awake at night holding a gun.

More than 150 years later, their family farm still stands in Monroe County, near St. Patrick's Church at Georgetown.

Their tolerance and perseverance is testament to another Irish proverb: "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind finely."

• • •

This Tuesday in Iowa, the Irish will celebrate their heritage. Some towns, such as Emmetsburg (the self-proclaimed Emerald Isle of Iowa) and Melrose (where street signs boast names like Shamrock, Kerry, Kells and Trinity), plan festivals.

Chances are you'll have little trouble finding someone right here in Johnson County who is Irish with whom to enjoy the day. Nearly 1 in 6 Iowans claim Irish heritage. As little Jimmy Doyle's dad would say, "We're like crows in a cornfield."

So on Tuesday raise a mug to the Irish in Iowa and to then to the Irish everywhere.

And as you do, be sure to repeat this grand old Irish toast: "May the Lord keep you in his hand and never close his fist too tight."


(originally published March 16, 2003)

March 14, 2005

What light bulbs go off when saying a genius' name

I asked some Iowa Citians buying beauty products this week to say the first thing that came to mind when hearing the words "Albert Einstein." The most common answers:
•Crazy hair
•Light bulb

All lovers of science are cringing right now. Why? Without question, Albert Einstein is the most influential scientist from the 20th century. His theories of relativity entirely upset the old paradigm, established by Isaac Newton, for understanding the universe. Einstein's theories led to X-rays, microwave ovens and lasers. A letter he wrote to President Roosevelt spurred America to invent the atom bomb, which in turn established us as the ubersuperpower after World War II. To sustain our status, we set foot on the moon as humanity entered the age of space exploration, which has allowed us to better grasp the universe's deepest mysteries.

And yet, very few people understand Einstein's theories or how their ramifications ripple into virtually every aspect of our lives.

Why bring this up on such a pleasant spring morning? Because today in 1879, Einstein was born in Uln, Germany.


During 1905, Einstein published four papers that changed the world. Among them was the "Special Theory of Relativity," which brought a fresh view of space and time to science.

Essentially, Einstein described the behavior of motion for objects when they travel close to or at the speed of light, which is roughly 186,000 miles per second. This is all very difficult for most of us to understand simply because we don't travel that fast. Still, his descriptions hold true for us when we're driving only 75 mph down Interstate 80.

Among those concepts was naming time as the "fourth dimension." Or as Einstein explained, "An attempt at visualizing the Fourth Dimension: Take a point, stretch it into a line, curl it into a circle, twist it into a sphere, and punch through the sphere."

His fourth paper linked energy (E), mass (m) and the speed of light (c), to show that a small amount of matter can be converted into a large amount of energy. This gave birth to the famous formula E=mc(squared). Several years later, he extended his theory to gravity and acceleration.

Einstein certainly was a genius. But he didn't entirely explain how the universe works. If anything, he created all kinds of mind-boggling paradoxes.

For example, how could one twin be several years older than the other? Simply send one sibling on a really fast spaceship and leave the other on Earth. Because time slows as one approaches the speed of light, according to Einstein, when the rocket returns in say 50 years, the twin aboard it will not have aged as much as the twin who stayed on Earth.


Einstein has three major scientific connections to Iowa, so far as I could discover.

First, many health care professionals at the University of Iowa have attended or worked at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (and vice versa). The college is the Bronx, which boasts concrete rather than dirt and cornfields.

Secondly, Hans Albert Einstein - Albert Einstein's son - is a prominent figure in the mechanics of sediment movement and water flow in alluvial rivers; the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research, located on the University of Iowa campus, published a book by Hans' second wife about their life and what it meant to live in the shadow of a father who everyone thought was the smartest man to ever live.

Third, Captain James T. Kirk, who will be born later next week 224 years from now in Riverside, commands a starship that travels faster than light, which violates Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Even as the Enterprise accelerates toward the speed of light, the G-force alone should smush Kirk and crew into the bulkheads like tomatoes.


A lot of Iowans (many of whom were Germans) had crazy hair in 1879. Among the popular styles for wo-men was long braided hair that fell to the thighs. Split curl bangs were a must. Flowers adorned the cut.

Einstein's hair tends to frizz out, as if he'd stuck his finger into a light socket a few minutes ago and gravity was pulling it back down.

Or maybe he just didn't comb it. After all, Einstein remained keen on breaking what he described as "the chains of the merely personal" so that "wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings" wouldn't restrain his intellectual thinking. Simply put, he did not waste time pondering the relative merits of shampoos and conditioners.


Einstein, alas, had nothing to with the light bulb. That was Thomas Edison.

Which brings us full circle.

(originally published March 14, 2004)

March 13, 2005

When hate seeps into our lives

At 7 a.m. today, 141 years ago, the weather was fine for a bunch of boys from East central Iowa as they moved out onto the Louisiana river plains. The 24th Iowa Infantry had been gathering for several days with regiments from Ohio and New York, preparing to take Shreveport, Louisiana's capital during the Civil War.

These young men, used to open prairies bearing some of the world's richest soil, found themselves occupying the swampy southern end of that state, with almost nothing but semi-tropical bayous separating them from the gulf. After weeks of fighting their way down the Mississippi River, some leaders assured them this would be the decisive battle to end the war in the Western Theater: The Red River Expedition.

• • •

As the South won early victories, during the summer of 1862 a call went out for Iowans to take up arms. With hot winds at their backs, men from Johnson, Linn, Cedar and three other counties left the wheat and oat fields, the city smitheries and mills, and crossing the Iowa and Cedar rivers, converged in Muscatine.

Like the crops most of them had planted only a few weeks before, many of these volunteers were seedlings in adulthood and the art of war. For several weeks, they drilled, practiced shooting and ingrained themselves in the army way of life.

They also learned to objectify Southerners, or the "Rebs" as many of those soldiers referred to the Confederacy in diaries and oral accounts given later in life. Such objectification of the enemy is necessary for a military force to succeed. After all, killing another man only comes easy to those who have lost their moral bearings. As psychologists found after examining adolescents who had killed their classmates during the 1990s, the shooters exhibited no sense of right or wrong.

But one cannot be morally wrong if the enemy is the incarnation of evil.

• • •

None of this is to say the boys of the 24th were not brave or that they did not fight a just cause. Sometimes war is the only resort to stop a Hitler or a Napoleon.

But the common man serving in such armies and navies does not fight Hitler or Napoleon. Instead, he takes up arms against another common man, perhaps someone with a wife back home, maybe someone who only a few months before spent his days raising wheat and oats or working in the blacksmith shop and grist mill.

• • •

By the eve of the Red River Expedition, the 24th had valiantly proven itself many times, at the Battle of Champion Hill, in the siege of Vicksburg, during Gen. William T. Sherman's march on Jackson, Miss. You can tour those battle sites today at the Vicksburg National Military Park. There's even a monument to Iowa's fallen on a park tour road.

• • •

"If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is a part of yourself," author Herman Hesse once said. "What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us."

What was it in Southerners that a Northerner could hate? Disloyalty, possibly. While the Confederacy saw itself as maintaining state's rights and hence personal liberty, the Union thought the South had broken its mutual pledge to give "our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

There was the notion of progress. The Confederacy fought for tradition, even believed it upheld the best values of their British forefathers. The North stood for industry and social change, such as the ending of slavery.

But such ideas mean little to the man parted from his wife and the comfort of his fields. To achieve true objectification, the "Reb" became cruel, barbaric. Thomas Nast's drawing "Southern Chivalry" shows a Confederate soldier holding the chopped off head of a Northern soldier and others scalping Blue Coats for trophies.

They showed men who'd lost their moral bearings.

• • •

Spring 1864 proved to be dry. The air grew cold at night with water in the expedition's buckets freezing three-quarters of an inch deep. The boys of the 24th burned fences of abandoned fields to stay warm. Then the roads turned dusty, coating them as their feet kicked up the red clay. Even after a hard rain in late the afternoon of March 24, the muddy roads quickly dried by the following morning.

A diary kept by 27-year-old James A. Rollins, of Wilton, primarily notes weather, if he received a letter from someone, where he camped, and mostly how far he marched - 6 miles one day, 15 miles the next, then 17 miles. By March 31, the men had walked 290 miles.

They feared guerillas who picked them off in ambushes then disappeared into the undergrowth; sometimes in a whirlwind of hate, they took revenge, with Co. I burning two plantations on April 3. When rations ran low, teams foraged for food; sometimes they took local farmers' cattle and oats for meals.

Even amid such destruction, affirmations of the positive remained. There is a spring to Rollins' writing when he receives a letter from his wife. And he records observations that only an Iowa boy might notice: "The country looks fine but none of it farmed" and "Camped ... on a small Bayou Country generally good and very level most of it farmed."

• • •

The expedition did not end with Shreveport's capture. River levels remained too low for boat traffic, and miscommunication left the Union's attack forces uncoordinated. Eventually the 24th would loyally follow Gen. Ulysses S. Grant east. The regiment would boast many great heroes.

But the divisions of that war remain today. An Electoral College map is proof enough.

The source of this division certainly isn't the 24th's battles with the Confederates. Their story merely is one of many about how common men get caught up in history's winds of hate.

(originally published March 13, 2005)

March 10, 2005

Iowa celebrates birthday of James Dean of jazz

Today is the 102nd birthday of my all-time favorite Iowan: Bix Beiderbecke.

Outside jazz circles, Bix doesn't hold the same name recognition as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong. But in the few recordings this young cornetist made, he played a vibrant, pure tone that always transcended the mediocre tunes being worked with.

And for any musician of any genre, that's quite an accomplishment.

A short life cheated Bix of deep, lasting fame; he died at only 28. But the way he blew that horn and so badly behaved during those few brief years is what endears him so greatly to tens of thousands of jazz fans.

To put it in contemporary terms, Bix was the James Dean of jazz.

East of Eden

Born in Davenport, Bix irritated authority from the very beginning. At the age of two, he could pick out tunes with a single finger on the piano, his pitch perfect. Enrolled in music lessons, he played tunes from heart rather than reproduce them from a score; his instructor got so upset that he quit on Bix.

In 1919, Bix heard his first record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, sort of the Bill Haley and the Comets of its day. Hooked, he borrowed a classmate's horn.

Without any formal training, he developed an un-orthodox of fingering, something that studied musicians of his time despised.

Then, in August of that year, Bix wandered down to the Davenport waterfront where steamboats from New Orleans docked. Hearing Armstrong perform, Bix realized what he wanted to do in life. He wanted to play jazz and bought his own horn.

This did not go over well. Most of white America considered jazz "jungle music," and Bix's middle class parents would have nothing of it. When he started doing poorly in school, they sent him east of the Iowa cornfields to a military-styled prep school in Lake Forest, Ill.

It was the best mistake his parents could make.

Rebel without a cause

Lake Forest is just 35 miles from Chicago, which in the 1920s was becoming the center of jazz. Bix spent his nights listening to Armstrong and King Oliver, and met a young songwriter named Hoagy Carmichael.

Bix soon was expelled.

With only his music, he traveled to New York then around the Midwest playing in orchestras and bands. Audiences reacted coolly at first to him; trouble reading the scores prevented him from learning numbers, but once he picked them up, he outshined his band mates.

Bix's break came in 1924 when he joined the Jean Goldkette Orchestra in Detroit. But the recording director disliked Bix's style, which was hot jazz, an ensemble improvisation with soloing and a fast pace that made it easy to dance to. Frustrated, Bix left the band after two months.

During spring semester of the 1924-1925 school year, Bix enrolled in the University of Iowa. He majored in music but wasn't interested in fulfilling various academic requirements. Then he got into a bar fight downtown with a football player.

Bix lasted a total of 18 days in Iowa City.

He drifted around, playing with such future big band greats as Red Nichols and the Dorsey brothers.

Eventually he rejoined the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. It was then that Bix's true brightness shined.


But it had little to do with Goldkette.

A contingency of the orchestra, including Bix and Jimmy Dorsey, often gathered to play jazz the way they liked, as a small ensemble with a lot of improvising and soloing. Those qualities virtually define jazz, which is why the formal big band sound isn't always considered good jazz; its akin to Pat Boone singing "Tutti Frutti."

In 1927, the small ensemble laid down several classic jazz tracks. Critics often list one of those tunes, "Singing' the Blues," as among the greatest jazz recordings of all time.

When Goldkette dissolved, Bix and band mate Frank Trumbauer joined the Paul Whiteman orchestra. The Beatles of its day, Whiteman popularized jazz for white audiences, particularly with a recording of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Bix had reach-ed the pinnacle.

But Whiteman's high expectations and controlling personality clashed with Bix's schoolboy spirit and independent genius. Bix grew unhappy and quit.

During the last two years of Bix's life, his health deteriorated greatly thanks to bootleg gin. Suffering delirium tremens and a nervous breakdown, he spent a lot of time in hospitals trying to recover.

When out, he performed with such future jazz greats as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa. Many wanted to play his 1926 masterpiece, "In a Mist," with him.

On Aug. 6, 1931, unable to shake a cold, Bix died during an alcoholic seizure. The official cause of death: edema of the brain.

How good was Bix? Carmichael, in his autobiography "Sometimes I Wonder," wrote how once after a gig he and Bix stopped on a cold night along a lonely country road. They took out their horns and played: "Clean, wonderful streams of melody filled the dawn, ruffled the countryside, stirred the still night. I bolted along to keep up a rhythmic lead while Bix laid it out. A wind drove autumn leaves around us. Bix finished in one amazing blast of pyrotechnic improvisation. He took his horn away from his mouth, as if a sleepwalker's dream."

Bix was poetry.

(originally published as "Iowa celebrates 100th birthday of James Dean of jazz" on March 9, 2003)

March 07, 2005

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

The Martians are coming! The Martians are coming!

Or at least Mars got very close to Earth - on Aug. 27, 2003, 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, sur-rounded 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)

March 06, 2005

Distant edges as seen from the middle

March serves as an in-between month, neither fully winter nor spring, that time of pent-up buds, a point midsemester when we find ourselves halfway through the textbooks.

And so in my elementary classroom of many years ago, we often found ourselves no longer able to look at the seemingly unending math problems before us. We needed a distraction, a puzzle more intriguing than 83.3 x 71.4.

We found it in puddles. Thanks to melted snow and cold rains, an array of them dotted the playground and neighboring cornfield. A trickle of water down the sloping asphalt interested us the most, though, as a shallow bank of snow had forced the stream to collect in a miniature pond. Gradually the water worked its way around the barrier, taking the path of least resistance toward a roadside ditch

So we set our small bodies to building up the snow dam, to stemming the ceaseless flow, organizing our activities while some - because of their age or height or smarts - asserted themselves as leaders. Even with mittens on, hands grew chilled as we gathered snow from grassy areas; feet and pants legs became increasingly soaked as we brushed up against the stream. Crisp air filled our warm lungs, though, invigorating us while we placed our chunks of snow. Some of us even created smaller dams up-stream to slow the flow.

Then finally, as recess neared its end, we paused to stare at our creation - a four-foot high wall of white stretching halfway across a parking space, perceptibly collecting water. Reflecting the gray sky, the lake seem-ed to be a deep abyss from which our insubstantial faces peered back at us.

Pioneers sometimes began their journey west in March. It, too, was an in-between month for them; if Iowa's wintry weather remained at bay, they could reach their destination in time for spring planting, meaning food could be on the tables next autumn. The tall grasses had not quite sprung up yet, allowing them to make good time if the ground stayed hard.

Their diaries describe the plains first as a large meadow, something they could comprehend, then as a great desert, for its deceptively flat and calm terrain appeared virtually lifeless. It was an error, on their part; while the rainfall wouldn't support the forest of trees they'd become accustomed to out East, the soil beneath them proved to be among the world's richest.

How those early travelers must have suffered, pressing against the wind, their collars pulled up as a vista of brown grass stretched into the horizon before them. As evening approached, they'd stop to put up for the night, shooting a rabbit or a prairie chicken for their dinner. Once darkness fell and the comforting scent of campfire smoke wafted about, they might sing or tell stories. These small figures, encased by the dark, realized all they had were one another.

Of course, a few did stay, building towns on the emigrant trail to California, that supposed paradise of unlimited opportunity and wealth.

And for those who did continue on and reached the coast, they found another seemingly desolate span before them, the great barrier of the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps at night as the campfire began to die, some of those pioneers stared at the abyss that is the sky. The stars amid that depth and mystery, accompanied the moons' hypnotic motion, must have appeared deceptively calm.

For centuries, many could not conceive of the universe larger than our solar system. The stars, they concluded, sat on an invisible sphere that circled our Earth. In the early 1900s, scientists realized those stars formed a galaxy, the Milky Way, of which we primarily saw one spiral arm. By mid-century, astronomers realized our galaxy was only one of millions.

We stand today at the edge of this new frontier, our astronauts barely having waded into the black sea.

Infinity boggles our minds. Perhaps trapped between birth and death, two finite points, we have difficulty thinking outside of that framework. Indeed, "the infinite" is the subject of mystics, of New Agers staring at the phantasmagoric oom, of mathematics seemingly gone awry when we're told in grade school that numbers have no beginning and no end, that zero is just a midpoint. The infinite is faceless, mindless, a mystery too great to grasp.

And so upon entering it, we quantify, give names, take measurements, establish outposts. We project our hope into the spatial and temporal unknown, then lay out plans to tame the wilderness and work to see those efforts come to fruition.

We need the unknown, another problem, which we've never addressed before, to solve. It's not the puzzle's solution, though, but how we fit the pieces together that matter. They tell us who we are; they give us purpose. It's nice, too, if the puzzles have edges, so we can better feel our way around to a denouement.

And what of those puddles back in our playground, of the dam we created to stop the ceaseless water? Our young minds, convinced a limitless future loomed before us if only we could break from the four walls in which bleak March had imprisoned us, found themselves fascinated by the great sky reflected in that sheen of water.

As the recess bell rang and the children ran for the school building, one of us always stayed behind at the puddle, still staring. Then, before breaking into a run himself, he'd stomp his feet into the puddle, just to prove to himself that the bottom was still there.

(originally published March 6, 2005)

March 05, 2005

Will we remember old lessons on journey ahead?

Though barely rising through the layers of winter's dead brown leaves, its meaning was unmistakable. The cluster of five purple petals marked the first wildflower I'd spotted this year during walks along the Iowa River. Clinging to the slope leading out of the river valley, it meant spring really was here.

Pausing, I kneeled before it. The solitude of a nature hike allows one the luxury of satisfying curiosity.

It smelled sweet, though I could not place exactly what like. Not sugary like a confection, not citric as a bite of fruit, but something ... youthful.

It was the scent of spring itself.

• • •

There may be no better words to describe spring than those from a literary work whose opening lines a high school English teacher made me memorize as graduation approached. I can recall them to this day:

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
"The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
"And bathed every veyne in swich licour
"Of which vertu engendered is the flour ..."

So begins the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," a seminal English work containing some of the best short stories written. My teacher had the class memorize various sections of the book as Chaucer wrote them in Middle English, a language some 700 years old just different enough from Modern English that we have trouble reading it.

A rough translation in 21st century prose:

During April, whose sweet showers pierce March's dryness to the root and bathe every plant's vein with water, by whose power flowers are produced ...

Somehow, the modern version doesn't sound quite as melodic.

• • •

But the beauty of spring hasn't been reduced any the less for it. There is something invigorating as one steps through the first warm day of April: sunshine caressing the cheek and bare arms, the flashes of green bursting through the ground and across the branches, songbirds cheerfully filling in their old friends of tales from the winter's journey south.

In spring, we also seem to lose our heads. It's a time of falling in love, when the soberness and cabin fever of winter must give way to lighter pursuits.

It's a time of beginnings. Farmers sow their fields with corn seed. Buds slowly unwind into leaves. And wars, too, often are launched in late spring - the crops are in, the rains have ended, weeks of warmth are ahead ... yes, for every metaphorical cliché of spring being the start of life, the season has brought much death and sorrow to humanity as well.

What was it that Pete Seeger once sang? "When will they ever learn?"

• • •

Chaucer's tale is about travelers on a pilgrimage to a holy site in England. It's a common enough occurrence at this time of the year with Easter, Passover and Arba'in converging as they do. For safety - it was the Middles Ages, after all - the pilgrims agree to travel together.

To pass the time, they tell one another stories.

Through the various tales, we learn different lessons. Each is as full of symbolism and morality as a spoiled child's Easter basket is stuffed with candy, your understanding of the world fattens with each passage.

It's a delicious book to read.

• • •

I did not pluck the purple cluster of flowers. There was no need to deny someone else from enjoying them. So long as my memory is strong, its simple beauty and pretty scent remain for me to recall.

I believe the diminutive bloom was a phlox, but I've never really taken the time to learn such things. For some reason no one ever asked me to memorize that. Or perhaps a teacher had required it, and it's just been a long time passing.

A lesson forgotten or missed?

Moving up the trail, I pondered such things. The quiet of a nature hike allows one the luxury of such ruminations of past and present. For "Life," Soren Kierkegaard once said, "must be understood backward. But it must be lived forward."

Perhaps by next spring, more lessons of long ago will be recalled - if only so we may move forward rather than repeat cycles.

(originally published April 11, 2004)

March 04, 2005

When our streams go forgotten

During the past week what little snow there was around Iowa City melted away. It was another light winter, which made for easy driving and a little less strain on our backs from sidewalk shoveling. Until the spring rains arrive, the proverbial jury is out on whether too little snow will mean drought this summer.

But we did lose something thanks to the dry winter: the fast, wonderful rise of our creeks as cold meltwater flows into them.


Those of us fortunate enough to live near a creek when growing up discovered it one spring day during grade school. We'd always known it was there, had heard our parents talk of it. Maybe during summer while aboard a combine with our father, we'd glimpse the distant, blue sash that ribboned ever onward through the amber corn.

Eventually we reached an age when our parents let us amble alone into the fields or parks and explore. One such warm, April weekend I followed an amazing stream of cottony down that parachuted in windrows across the sky, leading me to my farm's waterway. The down sailed from a cottonwood that clutched the creek's high bank, and I sat beneath the tree, pretending snow was falling.

As the days grew longer and increasingly warm, I returned, listening to the lark's repeated song of lyrical five notes as watching the stream drawl southward.


By summer, we found the creek an extraordinary place to escape the open yard's constant wind. Sometimes we'd bring a book and read under the cottonwood. Other times we'd toss sticks into the creek, examining them as they moistened, rocked, then overturned while the poplar leaves upon the opposite bank flashed and dazzled and above me the cottonwood leaves danced.

As the sun slowly arced overhead, we watched the trout swimming in the stream, listened to the frogs croak from their muddy crevices, poked at the turtles curling into their shells, squished the stream's sandy bottom between our toes. We grew to understand the cottonwood, the fresh water and the caddis fly skimming its surface like a child knew the warm embrace of his parents. Thanks to winter's forced absence, from year-to-year we saw all the creeks' strange and wondrous changes, like how its course veered a little to the east and how the cottonwood rose a couple of feet.


The creeks of today are not the ones with which we grew up.

Today, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources warns us to eat only so many fish from various streams. Stinking green muck fills many creeks by late August as high phosphorous runoff encourages algae blooms. We must be careful at even the clearest of streams as they flow into ponds and lakes that routinely test positive for E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.

Though there are 70,000 miles of streams in Iowa, few of us rely upon them anymore. We use water treatment plants and deep wells to provide our water. Our streams remain hidden beyond the roll of a cornfield or an apartment building.

But that doesn't mean we don't need them.


When autumn arrived, we'd bid farewell to our imaginary friends - the trout, the frogs, the wild walnut trees, the turtles - and gaze sadly as the water rippled onward, fallen leaves flitting downstream upon its surface, to a wide, shallow bottomed river that we'd never seen for it was far away.

Then, one October as our feet crunched through the dry grass, the branches bare and silhouetted in the distant, setting sun, we looked hard at our refuge. Next spring, our parents said, we'd have to start helping around on the farm, get a summer job. A cold wind slapped our body, and we sensed it might be the last day of Indian summer, that there would be no more going to the creek.

We paused for a moment, took in a deep breath and watched the clouds purple above the orange sun. We plucked a stem, scraped off its head between our fingers. Finally, we tossed it down and walked languidly back to the house.

(originally published March 7, 2004 as "What we lose when our state's streams go forgotten")

March 03, 2005

What if you spent 70 days a year in a vast wasteland?

Many years ago I attended a modern art exhibit that featured the same videotape played on a series of televisions, except each set was from a different era. The image on the 1950s black and white appeared blurry, especially along the screen's edges; the early 1960s black and white offered a crisper picture; the late 1960s color set returned to the blur standard, though not at the edges; the 1970s color eliminated all haziness; the 1980s color set was smaller.

And while seeing each incremental technological advance intrigued me, as noticing the soap opera video playing I couldn't help but think that for the most part, there just isn't much on television worth watching.


That the first color televisions rolled off the assembly line some 50 years ago as spring began certainly is ironic. Stuck inside during winter's gray skies and harsh cold, television is almost a meaningful entertainment option. But during spring, when the world comes alive with green grass, flower blooms and even rainbows, there hardly seems a reason to sit inside.

And yet we do. The average American spends 70 entire days out of a year watching television. Seventy days!

Just what are we watching?


What did people do before there was television?

I'm just "young" enough to never have lived in a time when there wasn't television. Sort of like today's infants, who will grow up in a world that always has had the Internet.

Among my parents' prize purchases during my preschool years was their first color television set. Like the rest of America, they were transitioning from black and white to living color. It cost them more than $300, which was a much greater percentage of one's income in 1967 dollars than today's dollars.

But the neighbors marveled. Until they got their own - one step above ours.

Not that there was much to watch back then. Just three networks and maybe an independent station, if you were lucky. Then public television hit the airwaves.

And what shows were on? CBS was the hick network in the 1960s with "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres." ABC was the edgy WB of its time, which meant there wasn't anything worth watching. There were a lot of westerns that followed the same plot every week on every program. Ditto for cop shows from the 1970s, then ABC got jiggly with "Charlie's Angels."


Though television still remains a wasteland, I'd never advocate removing it from the home. Major news events - man stepping on the moon, the hostages returning home from Iran, the Challenger explosion, the World Trade Center towers collapsing - all carry more impact in pictures than words, especially if seen live.

And there is exceptional theater, such as PBS's "I, Claudius," or documentaries where the visual imagery better expresses a concept than words, such as Carl Sagan's "Cosmos."

Television even can be a bonding experience between the generations - say parent and child enjoying "A Charlie Brown Christmas Special" together.


But could that 70 days a year in front of the television be more meaningfully spent with family and neighbors?

How many great books have gone unread because television provided an easy, lowest common denominator storyline?

How often have we forsaken a simple walk into the great outdoors, pulling in lungfuls of fresh air as the sun's warmth danced across our skin, and heard songbirds share their tunes as we caught a glimpse of a rabbit or white-tailed deer scurrying into the cornfield or underbrush?

(originally published March 28, 2004)

March 02, 2005

Fenceposts provide not a wall but a guide to life

About this time each year, after the snow melts but before the green of spring arrives, the ubiquitous fencepost appears stark and forlorn upon the prairie.

Like people passed each day on the street, fenceposts always have been there, marking boundaries. But in the barren landscape of March, they rear up from the horizon, bumping into our line of sight.

To some, a fencepost is but an obstruction, an indifferent object marking boundaries and dirtying the landscape.

Such people do not understand fenceposts.

• • •

Every spring in a never-ending project, my father would haul planks and post beams to the edge of our land and engage in a day or two of fence building. At first I merely accompanied him, but somewhere around the age of 10 I began to help construct the fence line.

I grumbled at losing my childhood freedom, for fence building consisted of hard work. It involved slamming a posthole digger into the earth and pulling up pungent black soil heavy with roots. After the hole reached just the right depth, the post would be plopped in then pounded yet deeper with a sledgehammer.

Sweat beaded off my father's temples as he carefully swung; bad aim could split the post or bash the hammer against one's foot.

Each post had to be a specific distance apart as well or the planks wouldn't be long enough to nail into them. Sometimes a boulder or stump stood in the spot right where a hole had to be dug.

When finally done, we'd stand a ways back in the cornfield's stubble and for a long while admire how that fence stretched across the plain, each post fresh and sturdy with youth.

• • •

Some decry fences, saying they symbolize divisions of property and wealth that cause fights. I suspect they really are talking of walls. In New England, fences like that of Robert Frosts' "Mending Wall" typically are made of fieldstone. They have a bulk to them and seal out views.

My father would say fences prevent fights. Cows don't understand property lines. And whenever two farmers work adjacent fields, they'll often stop, lean against a common fencepost to share the latest gossip, trials and tribulations. The post marks a spot where they can share common bonds.

For them, the fence is no more a wall than the village well or the office drinking fountain could be.

• • •

I suppose that's why my father laughed when one spring while digging a posthole, the rebellious teenager in me couldn't help but recite to him Frosts' line "Good fences makes good neighbors."

• • •

During long walks taken through the fields, I watched our fenceposts slowly age with each passing year.

Sometimes, the posts withstood great indignities, such as when the ground swelled, lifting them just enough that the planks strained and cracked against them. Other times, storms pressed against a post until it leaned too far in one untenable direction.

Should the plank come off a post, it weakened the others. Each fencepost stood solitary across the field but depended upon the one next to it for support and strength.

Not all posts suffered. Some became the perch of meadowlarks who, splaying their breastplate of gold, would sing for a mate. As knots loosened in the wood, some became nests for bluebirds.

Other times, vines of multicolored blossoms wreathed around the pole.

A fencepost could be violated, a fencepost could be celebrated. But each told its own story.

• • •

During college while helping my father repair a worn fence we'd erected long before, when my only concerns were baseball and dreamy adventures in the stars, I asked him for advice about a girl I loved.

"The problem," he said, "is in how you're trying to solve your dilemma."

Oh great, I thought, some more of my father's obtuse wisdom. I decided to humor him and asked what he meant.

"Well, take this fence," he said. "It's going to be 100 feet long with posts 10 feet apart. How many posts do we need?"

"That's easy. Ten."

He grinned, shook his head at my mistake. "You need 11. Your error is in counting things rather than the spaces between them."

• • •

Old-timers say hedge fences last two years longer than those made of stone. My father always preferred to make fences out of wood, however, even though wind and rain tend to destroy them sooner than either the shrub or rock varieties.

As each of my father's fenceposts neared its end, the grayed and weathered wood often would not budge for it had became firm in the ground. It frequently leaned slightly to a side as the planks upon it bowed with age. The weeds grew elbow high, nature returning to swallow it back up.

Then, after a long winter and once the ground thawed, my father would shovel the earth away from the post's base, pull it up and plant a new one nearby. A new generation of fenceposts replaced the old, serving the same purpose as before, suffering the same affronts and witnessing the same joys, all connected by stalwart planks that formed a thin meandering line into the horizon.

(originally published March 3, 2003)

Our capricious March

March remains a finicky month, tottering between winter's cold depths and spring's warm hope.

Some years, Mother Nature just can't decide. A March cold snap during the 1960s dropped Iowa's temperatures to 35 degrees below zero while a blizzard dumped 48 inches of snow, leaving the cornfields' cut stalks and snow fences buried. But a March 1987 heat wave put most of us in shorts and swimsuits as the mercury rose into the 80s.

While a few days almost every March tend to veer toward those extremes, mostly it all just averages out. More often than not, the month is certain to serve up a Western wind with rain, that either melts the holdout snow or waters the grass for a greener April. And gradually songbirds return from their Southern homes, deciding Iowa is a good place for them to raise children, too.

For most of us, though, the days of March ring a bit like those bowls of porridge Goldilocks fussed over - though we're more likely to find helpings that are too cold rather than too hot or just right. But day by day, even with the interloping ice storm or snowfall, the bowl warms just a little more.

(originally published March 1, 2005)