April 27, 2005

The thrill of being an active character in a story

With apologies to D.B. Weiss.

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

Or in my case, Agent 17.

• • •

My college freshman roommate didn't like video games.

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

(originally published April 27, 2003)

April 25, 2005

We're all in a club of connecting

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

(originally published April 25, 2004)

April 24, 2005

Don't give up what everyone else wants

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which means we get slighted.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

What 10 spots made Iowa's list?

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

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

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

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


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

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

May I suggest Iowa?

(originally published April 24, 2005)

April 20, 2005

A lamb’s best friend at times of burnt offerings

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

• • •

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

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

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

And then they started talking about mutton.

"What's mutton?" I said.

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

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

"You mean you actually eat those poor things?"

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

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

"Well, mainly, but ..."

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

• • •

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

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

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

They stand no chance against the lions of this world.

• • •

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

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

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

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

The Akbash truly are lamb's best friend.

• • •

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

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

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

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

Jimmy glanced at me, winked.

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

SIDEBAR: Iowa’s Sheep Industry

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

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

(originally published April 20, 2003)

April 18, 2005

Feeling young and easy again, thanks to another man's vision

My family's old barn, I discovered this Easter, is going in for a makeover. The parents have retired from farming and are selling off bits and pieces of the homestead to suburbanites trying to get back to their country roots.

I half suspected the barn soon would be demolished to make way for another man's castle. The call from my parents breaking the news would be a sad one indeed, I knew. But nostalgia can't stand in the way of progress - or my elderly parents' continued good health, which such land sales ensure. Perhaps a bottle of Scotch ought to be kept for the occasion.

A boy's barn is no trifling matter. As Dylan Thomas wrote in "Fern Hill," "And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns / About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home, / In the sun that is young once only, / Time let me play and be Golden in the mercy of his means." The barn is the center of a farm, the place where work is done, where laughter is had, where lessons are learned.

Driving past two new ranch houses on what used to be our farm's cornfields, the stacks of lumber outside the barn first caught my attention. A new door made of fresh oak wood covered the central entry leading into the mow, and the dormers that I'd dumped thousands of hay bales through sported pane glass windows.

"What on earth is going on with the barn?" were my first words upon entering mom and dad's house. Forget the "Hellos" and "It's good to see you."

Our old cow dogs, a little slow from arthritis, followed my dad and I as he showed me what was under way. Someone had bought our barn - and was remodeling it to be their home.

I consider it an apt gift at a holiday of resurrection.

(originally published April 18, 2004)

April 17, 2005

Closing the time needed to cross those empty spaces

Iowans didn't learn of the Civil War's start - the April 14, 1861, Fort Sumter attack - until April 18, 1861. Imagine not hearing about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, until four days later.

These days, journalists hold vigils near deathbeds, waiting to send the quickest report live via satellite or to post immediately on the Internet. Newsmen must fill the seemingly long gaps between turning points in an event, their broadcasts like a walk across an empty field. Those who tune in only hope to catch the reporter as he's reached a fenceline where his direction must change.


Back in Civil War days, three ways of spreading news, gossip and the latest New York City fashions dominated.

It might be carried by foot. This included delivery of the newspaper, a postal letter or simple word of mouth.

Or the news might come via telegraph, which was fairly instant between sender and receiver, but then all of us had to wait for the receiver to distribute the news.

There also was the train, if you were near a station, that is. While not a communication tool, it mechanically quickened how soon that postal letter or word of mouth might travel from one town to the next.


Pioneer accounts are filled with the joys of receiving a letter from distant family or an old friend. People poured over newspapers word for word. But newspapers were different then; in small towns across the nation they told of who visited whom for dinner and what each attendee wore at the last elegant ball. It's not that there wasn't "news" to report - it's that other things mattered more than they do now.

Readers simply were trying to fill empty places.

Imagine a life where for most hours of the day the only thing in sight other than family was a field stretching into the horizon. The bleakness must have grown crushing in autumn when only the yellowed stubble showed, then almost unbearable in January as snow gripped the land, the wind lifting ice particles off it as if sand curling a shifting dune. During the day, only the chimney smoke of distant farmhouses offered a break in the expanse; at night, only a pinpoint of light remained.

Those lights might as well have been stars.


We couldn't literally close the empty space those fields created, but we decreased the time needed to cross them.

Radio and telephone came first. Though instant in transmission, they remained incomplete - unlike a newspaper or magazine, there are no pictures. But the sound of another's voice carried so clearly across the wind remains comforting yet today.

Television followed a generation later. It offered instant news with pictures. Less than two decades later, cable allowed a wider range of topics to be discussed for more hours of the day. But television is like shouting across the field to a mute - we know he sees and hears us, but there can be no response.

The Internet arrived half a generation after cable. It now instantly brings to audiences those items that are too insignificant for television to cover. It gives all of us megaphones to shout at one another across the field.


These days, the speed of communication increases not with every generation but several times intragenerationally.

No less than 10 years ago, readers had to wait a full 24 hours for their newspaper to be updated. As around the clock television threatened to make them obsolete, newspapers even in the smallest Midwest towns created Web sites, updated regularly to bring news to audiences. While that has been going for a few years with wire stories on national, world and sporting events, many papers these days now also provide local news updates every few hours.

What impact does this have upon our lives? Perhaps a society once starved for information has too much of it. But the issue doesn't seem to be quantity so much as quality. We may be bombarded with reports on the latest celebrity murder trial and what someone thinks of 50 Cent's chart topper, but what about the stuff that really matters?

And just what is that stuff?

I pose this test: Would we cross a field to tell someone else about it?

(originally published April 17, 2005)

April 13, 2005

Looking for someone to be a friend? Go fly a kite

Every time the kid tossed his kite into the air, it'd fly back in his face. Sometimes he'd get lucky, though, and it'd only slam into the ground then somersault to his ankles.

Though laughable in a Charlie Brown sort of fashion, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. It's not because I was a nice kid, either. I wholeheartedly believed even at 10 that sometimes the best way to grow is by making a mistake; there's no harm in scraping your knee if you learn something from it.

But the kid was taking it on both knees and both elbows, over and over. Having flown kites by myself for some time, I understood what he was going through.

• • •

At 7 a.m., precisely, I'd lay my kite out. There only were a few short minutes before the school bus arrived, so I rushed through a face washing and bowl of Captain Crunch each spring morning, just so my time could be maximized nine hours later - at 4 p.m. - when the day's studies were done and there was just me, the brilliant blue skies and a good breeze.

Not much time remained until dinner; after that, darkness fell. And there was the struggle of getting the kite aloft in the first place.

But once the kite rose in the air, all the trouble was worth it. I'd imagine myself a paraglider, soaring like a bird across the wide earth, the whole horizon before me, riding currents and thermals, the wind my road.

Checking the line, inspecting for tears, ensuring the sticks were securely attached - each morning it put me in the mood for several hours of good, solid daydreaming.

• • •

Tossing a kite into the air and hoping the wind catches it usually leads to disaster.

The trick is to lay the kite lines on the ground. Then at waist level in front of you, hold the line handles parallel to one another. The lines then have to be pulled taut and the kite pushed upward. Jerk the handles back, and the kite rises. Return your hands to the starting position and use quick tugs to help the kite ascend. A smile is guaranteed.

Now just try doing that by yourself.

• • •

But I did, over and over. Usually my father was busy in the machinery shed or with the livestock. My only sibling was six years younger, and he didn't grasp the intricacies of launching a kite. Being on a farm, the nearest neighbor boy near my age lived three miles away.

So it was me alone.

I devised several elaborate schemes. One was to place the kite on two stacked hay bales so when pulling the lines taut the wind would take it. Usually a stick caught on the twine.

Or the kite might be positioned in front of a fan. Plugging in the extension cord while holding the lines taut proved fairly difficult.

A running start also was tried: Push the kite into the air and run from it. Sometimes out on the fresh-tilled cornfield you could outpace the breeze, and the kite would catch an air stream.

Ultimately, though, the real challenge was not to stomp on your kite in frustration when none of those methods worked.

• • •

A lot of kite-flyers are loners, not at heart but by circumstance. One such man was Iowan Samuel Cody. Born in 1867, he soon became the best horseman, roper and marksman around. When no one believed someone from Iowa could posses such skills, he told people he was from Texas.

This created problems whenever he met a Texan. They could hear right through his accent. He soon took to kite flying.

Inventing his own special model, he tried selling it to the British military. A train of them, he said, could lift an observer in a wicker basket, giving a commander the advantage on the battlefield.

The British didn't believe him. But they were impressed with his marksmanship and offered him a job training the troops how to shoot.

He turned down the offer and proceeded to fly across the English Channel in a 13-foot boat drawn by one of his kites. That got their attention. A long and mutually beneficial relationship followed.

In fact, a famous Cody war kite recently was sold at Sotheby's.

• • •

One of the neat things about kites is how they bring people together. In Iowa, Burlington, Mason City, Sac City and Grinnell all hold kite flying festivals or competitions. On the Internet, kite enthusiasts exchange information about the best places to fly kites when they travel to various spots about the globe.

So what on the surface appears to be a solitary activity actually isn't. Making your kite loop and dive may not require another person, but like a jazz soloist improvising, it sounds better when others play along and an audience listens raptly.

Is it any surprise then that jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke, Glenn Miller and Al Jarreau either hail from or spent formative years in Iowa? An old kite flyer like Samuel Cody would get it.

• • •

Unfortunately, the kid didn't.

So I walked over to him, just said "hi." He whispered "hi" back.

"Hand me your kite," I said.

Perhaps because the kid was a couple of years younger, he did. I set it on the ground, and his eyes got big. Maybe he thought I was going to stomp on it.

"Hold the handles in front of your waist," I said.

As he did, I pulled the lines taut and pushed the kite upward. "Jerk the handles back!" I said, and suddenly the kite was aloft, this yellow diamond gliding across the blue sky.

We looked at each other and smiled.

April 11, 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 launch-ed 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)

April 10, 2005

Finding balance at a time when only extremes 'matter'

These days, some would have us believe that only the extreme catches anyone's attention. Movies and books must be shocking. On television we watch extreme sports and extreme makeovers. The latest computer chip is dubbed "Extreme Edition."

But there's a value in being in the middle, of finding one's balance and center. Sometimes it's just a matter of understanding place.

We've entered such a season. Though buds have barely formed on most trees, the grass has greened, finally vibrant after months of winter's cold blanket. Businesses downtown have propped their doors open, but few have yet turned on the air conditioner.

People walk a bit slower than a month or two ago. There's no need to get out of the cold, but the deep humidity that causes us to fall into slumberous, trancelike steps hasn't arrived.

Sunglasses have replaced the stocking caps and scarves, but sweatshirts haven't quite made it to the back of the closet; we tie them about our waist in case the day should suddenly cool.

The weather deceives us until we step outside. From the window, that light waft in the tree boughs beneath the brilliant blue skies appears to be a warm breeze. But the air remains cool and dry enough that depending on where one stands, the breeze either can soften the sun's intensity or bring a shiver, and sometimes both just minutes apart.


Finding balance, though, is more than attaining comfort. It's a matter of livelihood. We've entered that season of planting, when the plows and planters emerge from their sheds. Knowing soil temperature and soil moisture can affect planting depth and spacing. If the soil remains too dry, germination suffers.

It's akin to ideas. Go to one extreme, and no new thoughts flourish.

One might say the same of the harvest. The corn kernel has to be at the right moisture level. Too high, and the corn rots in storage. Too dry, and yields drop from stalk lodging and insect feeding.

Ideas suffer from the same dilemma. The thought not long mulled over quickly grows sour in the public arena. The one kept too long breaks the flow of discussion.

Hamlin Garland, who popularized the term "middle border" to describe Iowa and more broadly the Midwest, possessed a sense of symmetry. Describing how he wrote his first sale in "Boy Life on the Prairie," he noted, "With a resolution to maintain the proper balance of rain and sun, dust and mud, toil and play, I began an article descriptive of an Iowa corn husking, faintly hoping it might please some editor."

An unobtrusive work, it pleased many readers, too.

(originally published April 10, 2005)

April 06, 2005

Eagles overcome great odds, achieve the magnificent

Spring's first buds popped along the thin branches of downtown Iowa City's trees last week. Barring a cold snap, it means the days are limited for seeing Iowa's most spectacular aerial show: Our bald eagles.

Oh, they'll still be around this summer. But once leaves spread out from tree tops and ground shrubs, they're difficult to spot.

It's a good weekend to get over to the Mississippi River, maybe Credit Island Park or the Rock Island Arsenal bridge in the Quad Cities.

• • •

The bald eagle, unique to our hemisphere, is apt for the American experience. Recognizing this, Congress chose it as our national symbol in 1782.

But eagles were not always so admired. Ben Franklin preferred the turkey because eagles scavenged, and this didn't seem fitting for a noble nation.

Meanwhile, the eagle, like immigrants facing poverty, dust storms and unchecked contagions, faced great challenges. Massive logging across the East Coast and Midwest destroyed eagle habitats. Hunters decimated remaining populations in search of plumage, to prevent the raptors from preying on chickens and out of a belief that eagles carried small children away.

After World War II, pesticides took their toll. Winter counts of bald eagles during the 1960s averaged less than 4,000 eagles in the lower 48.

• • •

But like the American movie archetype, the eagle is wildlife's Comeback Kid.

After DDT was banned and an endangered species list was created during the 1970s, the population grew fourteen-fold between the Kennedy and Clinton presidencies.

The Midwest drove much of this increase. More heavily wooded Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan now boast nearly a third of all eagle-nesting pairs in the contiguous United States.

Success there and similar local efforts have caused eagles to spread down the Mississippi River corridor.

And though nesting eagles had disappeared from Iowa during the early 1900s, they now can be found in 54 counties, primarily along rivers. There now are about 130 nesting pairs in the state.

• • •

Eagles particularly like Iowa winters.

Congregating along the Mississippi River, which doesn't freeze over, they have a plentiful supply of gizzard shad and other fish. At the annual Eagle Watch in Clinton, 2,500 eagles can be seen during early January.

When winter is mild, eagles roost more readily on inland rivers and lakes, particularly next to reservoirs where fish get knocked dizzy as water shoots through a dam's gates. Red Rock Lake and the Saylorville Dam particularly see nesting pairs.

• • •

Here's what you'll see at any of those spots: An eagle perched on a bare snag hanging over the water or maybe in a tall dead tree on a point of land. For a long while, it gazes at nothing, and then suddenly the bird swoops over the river.

Soaring upon the wind, its high and broad form magnificently circles overhead. If lucky, you'll catch it playing a game of tag with another eagle as they invert themselves to flash talons at one another.

Then, gliding a hundred feet above icy blue water, the eagle's eyes - sharp enough to read the print of this column from a football field away - glances down.

It dives.

A split second before striking the water, the eagle brakes, wings ablaze, casting a broad shadow over the waves, and the readied talons snatch a fish. In another instant, the eagle jets upward to rejoin the thermals. It circles back to a nest.

• • •

Eagles are creatures of the hearth. Each year, eagle pairs return to the same nest, repairing and expanding it.

In Iowa, the largest eagle nest on record was 10 feet wide, 20 feet deep and weighed two tons. The pair who created it weighed a mere 9 to 16 pounds.

They overcame great odds and achieved the magnificent.

(originally published April 4, 2004)

April 05, 2005

Saving season, years more important than an hour

The oddest thing happened last night: An hour disappeared from our lives.

If like most others across Iowa this morning, you're groggily trying to rectify why the VCR clock and your wristwatch say 9 a.m. even though the sun is higher in the sky than it should be at that time of the day.

Don't worry. After a couple of months, you'll adjust.

Or if you're like Chuck and Irwin, two bachelor farmer brothers who lived up the road from where I grew up, you just ignore the whole ordeal. From their point of view, the cows didn't practice daylight-saving time, so why should they?

• • •

Once a week, Chuck and Irwin would go into town. They'd sit on a bench in front of the café, a half a foot apart, Chuck wearing a beaten seed cap, Irwin a new one, both of them dressed in denim, work boots and gray hair. Though breathing in heavily punctuated wheezes, they smelled surprisingly clean in their button shirts, pen and notepad sticking from front breast pockets, as if they'd dressed up for the occasion. Still, their eyes always struck me as sullen, as if wondering what kind of cruel joke life had played on them.

They talked of people leaving town, of corn prices, of girls they knew long ago, of the general doom befalling our small town and the Midwest. Sometimes, one would rise and buy the other a soda; typically they took turns doing so, but neither spoke of any formal arrangements toward this end. Should one fall behind a week, though, it was sure to cause the slighted party to privately complain about the other being cheap.

For them, time didn't mean too much, unless it cost money or honor.

• • •

Daylight-saving time is a very old idea, so that Chuck and Irwin didn't follow it always struck me as curious.

The notion of skipping an hour began in the United States during World War I, mainly to save fuel by reducing the hours we'd need to use artificial light. Some states and communities observed daylight-saving time between the wars, but most dropped it like a jug of wood alcohol in a Prohibition police raid. Of course, during World War II rationing occurred once more, and so it was reinstituted nationally.

Chuck and Irwin grew up during World War II, so I figured daylight-saving time would be ingrained in them, just as my great aunt, raised in the Depression, always patched clothes even though her husband had a high-paying job as an electrician.

As the cliché goes, old habits are hard to break.

• • •

Apparently, Chuck and Irwin had decided daylight-saving time was a bad habit that they'd resolved to quit.

It just didn't match the rhythms of their lives.

Unlike city life, which re-volves around the artificiality of the clock, farm life - for a couple of bachelor brothers, anyway - followed the seasons. The increasing daylight of spring meant planting. The warm, long hours of summer were for cultivating and repairing. The weakening sunlight of fall meant harvesting. And the cold, dark hours of winter were for catching up on one's rest.

Perhaps that was why Chuck and Irwin never complained about Leap Year: It made sense to them.

But ask them about daylight-saving time, and they'd tell you it was worse than those crooked politicians sitting at the statehouse because of bought-off votes.

In fact, they added, the Russians practiced daylight-saving time. Khrushchev needed to improve productivity one year, they said, so he adopted daylight-saving time and moved the clock back an hour - at 5 p.m. when workers' shifts would have ended.

And true to their Amer-ican spirit, if you looked at a clock in Chuck and Irwin's house from April through October, it was an hour be-hind.

• • •

But old Chuck and Irwin may have been on to something.

A University of British Columbia study done about a decade ago found that traffic accidents rise by 8 percent the Monday after clocks spring ahead. That lost hour of sleep makes a difference.

Though it's only anecdotal evidence, during my first years as a reporter on the police beat, the number of traffic accidents I wrote about the week after we changed our clocks in April did indeed increase.

And I'd thought my editor was nuts when he first told me to come in a half-hour early the Monday after we sprang forward.

• • •

These days, Chuck and Irwin no longer farm. Chuck sits in a nursing home, and Irwin passed away a couple of winters back.

Myself, I haven't been back to the farm in a few seasons, but this Easter plan to return. I'm hoping the weather will be warm, so I can take my four-year-old nephew for a walk, show him all the trees I used to climb, give him some tips on how best to see the pheasants that nest at a sparse end of the woodlot.

I'd also like to pause for a minute in the cornfield's stubble, gaze off at the horizon where Chuck and Irwin used to live, and imagine their cows still grazing in the pasture even though every other farmer on the hill already had herded theirs into the barn for milking.

And I'll also take a second to ponder how it is that the years so easily disappear from our lives.

(originally published April 5, 2003)