June 15, 2005

School chairs not only ones in which we learn

Tom Savage, my barber, died a year ago this week. Cancer got the better of him.

Tom wasn't my barber for very long, only about a year-and-a-half, but I saw pictures of his cabin ravaged by a summer windstorm and then pictures of it rebuilt. We discussed county politics, exchanged the details of family histories and vacations. It may not sound like much, but my disappointment that he won't cut my hair again is a testament to the unspoken bond that develops between a man and his barber.

Indeed, after I discovered Tom no longer was in business, I procrastinated on getting a haircut for three weeks. My wife finally dragged me into one of those new fast-food hairstylist chains. You know the place, one where the unnatural sharpness of florescent light bears upon you as a girl barely out of her teens (or a middle-aged woman wishing she were in her teens) bounces around with a scissors to the beat of some technopop dance track, a song made with synthesizers instead of actual musical instruments.

The stylists' talk of pregnancy and who is the cutest guy on the soaps wasn't inherently wrong in itself, but for me it was an alien world. I might as well have plopped down on Venus without a spacesuit; the place was suffocating.

For you see, like Samson, a man cannot let just anyone cut his hair.

Part of a boy's education about what it means to be a man comes when sitting in a barber's chair. A wise man knows that through adulthood a part of him always remains a boy; the monthly visit to one's barber is like checking the compass to make sure you're still on course.

• • •

My first barber, Jim, didn't much like me. I was only two and couldn't sit still in the chair. One warm summer night, when the men stepped outside for a reprieve to en-joy the sunset, I remained in the chair, the sheet draped over me pinching tight at the neck.

Growing bored, I began spinning around in the barber's chair as fast as I could just to see how much speed might be built up and to discover how much time would pass before I got dizzy. The men came in while was doing this, and I was scolded thoroughly.

Every visit after that, though, Jim always gave me three or four quick spins around the chair if I sat still while he cut my hair.

When I was six, my parents moved. Like a dog passed on to a new owner, my dad needed a while to take to Herb, our new barber. One month, Dad and I even trekked back to Jim's for a haircut.

But Herb remained my barber for nearly 12 years. And in his shop, as I waited for him to finish the haircuts of my dad and the other men, I first learned of newspapers. Though Herb's magazine stack contained the previous year's issues of outdoors magazines and a tattered copy of "Tom Sawyer," he always had that day's metro paper on hand.

Through that paper, I discovered there was a greater world out there than the small farm and village that was my home. The outside world, I also learned, was one full of deceit and violence. Yet, as I read of astronauts who might die in space, of a president lying to us and of boys not much younger than my father dying in a distant jungle, I always could look up and amid the warmth of Herb's water radiator, the heavy scent of Brylcreem and the men's talk of family and friends feel comforted.

• • •

My next barber, Norb, is my favorite of them all. Perhaps that's because he was my barber during college, those uncertain years when a boy breaks from the tether of his parents. Amid the headiness of new, fantastic opportunities that a boy realizes, accepting the responsibilities of career, wife and family is more frightening yet as essential to his existence than anything he's faced before.

Norb always was fond of telling how he cut the hair of both John F. and Robert Kennedy. While each Kenn-edy ran for president in 1960 and 1968, they stopped in my college town of River Falls, Wis., for a rally. John entered Norb's shop mainly for the photo op. But when Norb was done with him in the chair, John announced it was the best haircut he'd ever received.

When John left the shop, a secret service man told Norb that the senator had never said that before to any barber.

John must have meant it. Eight years later, when Robert was in town, he stopped into Norb's shop and told him his older brother, John, had recommended him for a haircut.

That's quite a tribute to Norb in more ways than one. Norb, you see, was an officer in the county Republican Party.

• • •

Norb also liked to tell allegories. More than once I read between the lines and used his advice. The one time I didn't follow it, though, I broke up with a girl I'd been dating for a year-and-a-half.

After I got my first job, I'd still drive past 30 miles of cornfields once a month just to have Norb cut my hair. And, even though I lived in such far off places as New Mexico, whenever traveling home to visit my parents I'd be sure to block out time to get to River Falls, just to have Norb cut my hair.

Norb is retired these days. Herb died about eight years ago of cancer. Jim passed away from the earth before I'd even entered adulthood. I bid them, and Tom Savage, all adieu.

And in the meantime, like many of Tom's former customers, I'll be letting my hair grow a little longer for awhile.

(originally published June 15, 2003)

June 13, 2005

Getting your knees in the dirt for strawberry picking yields more than brimming pail

June offers a great treasure for those feeling disconnected in our asphalt-laden, electronicized world: berry picking. There is nothing quite like getting your knees into the dirt and picking strawberries yourself.

All begins well; you've turned picking into a family event, which your grandparents view as a nostalgic excursion and readily join. The day you select is a perfect June morning of clear blue skies and a gentle breeze. Ice cream pails swing in your hands.

Long rows of plants full of bright berries greet you. Kneeling at the first plant, the plump and fleshy strawberries, all of the most vibrant red you've ever seen, surprise you. You can't help but eat the first dozen berries picked.

But the knees soon strain as you pick in silence. The sun burns your bare arms and neck (now you understand why your grandparents wore long-sleeve shirts and hats despite the heat), and your back brims with pain.

About this time, you start appreciating that modern technology can bring berries from Mexico to anywhere on the globe any time of the year. But this is cheaper than the grocery store, you tell yourself. More important, the supermarket won't let you eat the pickings.

So you go back to work, and as the pail fills, the soreness in your back becomes oddly bearable. The sun rises higher in the sky; bluebirds fly overhead. You're thinking strawberry shortcake tonight.

The pail fills, and you turn back. You can't believe how much field you've covered, that you've been picking this long, that your fingers are so stained from berry juice.

Joining you, your grandparents break into a friendly argument over which is better, freezer jam or cooked preserves; Grandpa argues for jam's fresh taste, Grandma for preserves' low sugar content. Privately, you've got to side with your grandfather on this one.

And then you smile. Raspberries come in July.

(originally published June 13, 2004)

June 12, 2005

Finding moral roots in a strawberry patch

U-pick berry operations are on the decline as people increasingly shift away from their agricultural past. It's much more convenient to buy some little wooden baskets or cardboard crates of berries already plucked by someone else.

For convenience and even Midwestern thrift, I do that myself. But every June in those days when I was growing up on the farm, my neighbor Bill Bertram would go pick his own strawberries.

I couldn't understand why. But then the other day as hiking along a lush river, I found a rare wild strawberry plant, its fruit as red and fat as a thumb that's been hit by a hammer and weighing heavy on the bush. As the heat of sun warmed my cheek, I delicately turned the fruit over in my hand and started thinking of it plopped atop shortcake or ice cream, crushed into jam spread across toast and stuffed with dozens of others in a warm pie. Had I a little sugar to sprinkle atop the berry, I might very well have plucked and eaten it.


Finding a wild strawberry is whole different matter from working your way through a patch in the blazing sun and humidity, though. Even Bill said getting to the patch during the early morning, when the air remained cool and the sun hadn't fully ascended in the east, was best.

Still, he usually got a child-like glimmer in his eyes whenever talking of strawberry picking, as if somehow getting in the dirt again was like regaining his innocence. No, it wasn't his innocence so much as his sense of wonder and discovery, which also runs deep in our human roots.

After all, we need to question and experiment to survive.


One of the great discoveries of those growing strawberries in Iowa is that our berries tend to be sweeter than those from the West or South. Blame it on our extremes in temperatures. Strawberries prefer moderate temps that don't hover far from the 60s.

Our extremes also make for better berry picking. Some u-pick operations spread corn stalks and mulch around the plants to survive winter, which in summer keep our shoes from sinking into the wet dirt.

Plucking strawberries, like staying on the straight and narrow, is no easy task, Bill always said, but it's worth it.


So many of our morals and values derive from agricultural societies that existed for millennia. Some ponder why modern man has turned his back on those beliefs.

I'd suggest it's not the devil's work but a cultural shift. Not so long ago, most Americans and Europeans worked on farms; these days, farmers are a small minority of the population.

So what happens when we turn from the soil and the barn to the asphalt and the office? What happens when our hands do not raise and can the food we consume but instead labor in other endeavors so that we don't know how milk comes to be in a plastic jug or peas in a tin can? Can the phrase "milk and honey" mean as much when one never has to worry about its availability?

This weekend, I'm heading to a strawberry patch to find out.

(originally published June 12, 2005)

June 08, 2005

Brothers, truth, community pride and your courthouse

His chest tightening, my brother gaped at the county courthouse as we drove past. "That's where they take you, when you've been bad, and decide how long you'll stay in prison," I whispered to him. He was five and I just old enough to know enjoying seeing him afraid was wrong.

He gulped. "What kind of bad things?"

"Stealing, fighting, killing others." A team of sheriff's deputies escorted a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, shackles and handcuffs toward the courthouse. "Say, didn't you steal a couple of cookies last night even though mom told you to stay out of them?"

His eyes widened. "You won't tell anyone, will you?"

I nudged his side with my elbow. "Don't worry - I'd never do anything mean like that. Not to my brother."

• • •

The county courthouse we passed was not unlike those found across Iowa or any other Midwestern state: At the center of a town square, fronted by a flagpole and statue of a Civil War hero, the building of neoclassical design with tower in the center and columns at the front.

Entering the courthouse usually meant taking a stairs to reach the "first floor." Inside, you'd find murals and mosaic tiles and a rotunda.

That courthouses - such stodgy designs by today's standards - were built to be imposing was no accident. They signaled the power of law and of government by the people. The records they held were marks of the truth, committed to paper for all eternity. A courthouse was the community's pride.

Most Iowa counties have built three generations of courthouses. Johnson County is no different. Our earliest pioneers constructed Iowa City's first courthouse two-stories high and out of brick; it burned to the ground in 1856. The county erected a brick replacement the following year, but it was condemned in 1899. James Rowson and Son assembled the existing courthouse for $135,000; a dedication ceremony, featuring bands, balloons and a parade, was held 102 years ago today for it.

• • •

Courthouses were so important to a community's self-worth that brother often fought brother for the right to locate it in a town.

Consider Hardin County. In 1853, the village of Eldora was named county seat. But the neighboring town of Steamboat Rock thought the courthouse should be placed within its borders and forced a countywide vote on the matter. Steamboat Rock lost.

The next year, the village of Berlin also got a countywide vote to move the courthouse there. Berlin lost, too.

But the third time is a charm. When Point Pleasant challenged for courthouse bragging rights in a countywide election the very next year, it won.

After the votes were counted, sealed and delivered to the county courthouse, however, someone broke in and destroyed the ballots. Point Pleasant blamed Eldora residents for trying to usurp the election; Eldora blamed Point Pleasant residents for getting rid of evidence that proved the election had been fixed.

Ten years later, the battle of where to locate the county seat was decided, appropriately enough, in a courthouse. The Iowa Supreme Court named Eldora the winner.

It did not end there, though. Iowa Falls soon offered the county government $32,000 towards a new courthouse if it were built in that village. Eldora residents quickly launched a fund-raising drive and countered with $40,000.

And like so many other decisions in American courthouses, money finally settled the matter. Eldora remains Hardin County's county seat to this day.

• • •

Other communities took a more direct approach in moving their county seat.

When the Sioux County village of Orange City wanted the courthouse but the town of Calliope would not give it up, things got ugly. On Jan. 22, 1872, about 80 bobsleds from Orange City and another town descended upon Calliope. The raiders cut a hole in the log courthouse and hauled the 5,000-pound safe containing all of the county records to Orange City.

An election that November rubber-stamped the heist's results. But Orange City didn't build a courthouse until 30 years later.

• • •

My brother and I first entered a courthouse while on a field trip. We went to a small, rural school; when grades 1-6 got on the bus, there still were empty seats.

He was petrified of going, pondered feigning sickness the day of the trip.

"Don't worry," I told him as we lay in our beds the night before, "they're going to see how long other people who did bad things will go to prison. We're just there to see how it works. They won't know that you're the one who hit the baseball through the living room window."

"Yes," he said sotto voce, "but what if somebody tells them them while we're there?"

• • •

For proof that Big Brother can't happen in America, all one has to do is walk into a courthouse. Presuming understaffed clerks and secretaries had the time, they'd have a difficult go finding a record in the overstuffed storage rooms. Land, marriage, probate and criminal files represent decades of paperwork.

Indeed, courthouse records frequently pose nightmares for genealogists. In the 1800s, courthouse fires often resulted in the loss of records. Sometimes rodents made a mess of now browning paper.

To create a sense of permanence and stability, communities by the early 1900s constructed soaring courthouses out of marble, granite or limestone. Image was important. But such buildings were difficult to heat and suffered awful acoustics. Adding on to them as counties grew often resulted in odd and ugly constructs.

And some counties, desperately needing more space but seeking to save money, built charmless, modern facilities looking more like a hastily constructed community college than symbols of strength. Placed at the edges of town, the only things Iowan about them are the flag out front and the surrounding cornfield.

But we're a mobile society. We don't have time for bobsleds lugging 5,000-pound safes on Interstates 80 or 35. In fact, you can go to prison for doing so.

• • •

When my brother and I got home that evening from the field trip, he whapped me with his book bag.

"What'd you do that for?" I growled.

"You lied to me! The lady at the courthouse said they don't put little kids who take cookies or accidentally break windows into prison!"

And hence the value of the courthouse reared itself once again: With the truth comes power.

(originally published June 8, 2003)

June 06, 2005

A thing of beauty graces the skies: Our place in this universe

We've lost something by not having to rise at the crack of dawn to get a head start on the farm chores. We no longer witness the sky's slow shift from indigo to blue as the rising sun lifts night's shadows from the Earth.

On Tuesday, though, many will rediscover dawn's grace as they wake early to watch a rare event: the transit of Venus.

It's been 122 years since the morning star crossed the mighty sun, certainly a once in a lifetime event. Fortun-ately, if grey conceals the heavens, we'll get another chance in 2012. Miss that one, though, and we'll have to wait until the 22nd century.

Iowans will be able to see the last 20 minutes or so of Tueday's transit. Once the entire sun ascends the horizon, look for a tiny black dot upon its lower quarter. Be sure to don welder's glasses.


As the third brightest object in the sky, humanity long has worshiped and been fooled by Venus. The ancient Romans considered her the goddess of love and beauty, adopting many of the Greek myths of Aphrodite.

Venus is a mysterious world thanks to its thick cloud cover, which accounts for her brightness by reflecting a great amount of sunlight. Some thought she might be tropical. Not until the last quarter century did we really understand what she looked like. Despite her allure, she is a hellish world of intense heat and acid rain.

Venus, more correctly, is love gone bad.


The transit ought to re-mind us of our place in the universe. Though Venus will be but a speck upon the sun, its nearness to Earth actually makes the planet appear 30 times larger than it really is compared to our star.

And Venus is Earth's virtual twin in size.

(originally published June 6, 2004)

June 05, 2005

Lessons in building a load/mow of hay

By about this time of the year, those farmers who still grow alfalfa have cut their "first crop" of hay.

Learning how to build a load of hay used to be an important lesson in many young boys' lives. As a loader passed over a windrow of cut alfalfa, you'd use a fork to pile up the hay from one end of the wagon to the other then go back and forth over and over again until no more could be piled on. Knowing how to keep a level pile and how to fork the hay to ease the lifting were vital. So was the patience and tenacity to do it in the heat.

It's why corn is a lot more preferable to harvest.

I was born too late for that, though the lessons my dad learned when working the fields with horse and fork were translated to the modern reaping of hay. Though he says I came up with the idea (I always correct him - he taught me), stacking in a hay mow required alternating the bales so for one line the short sides pointed one way then in the next row the other; after laying on level, you'd start on the next, lining the bales in the opposite direction so they interlocked and wouldn't fall on you later.

To have sturdiness later, you've got to spend most of your time on the underlying structure. It's a lost lesson.

(originally published June 5, 2005)

June 01, 2005

What objects would you want to be remembered by?

If you could choose just five objects to be remembered by, what would they be?

The question is hardly trivial. Indeed, it's one that many people down the ages have pondered.

After all, the objects with which we surround ourselves tell much about our lives. Since they will outlast us, they may be the best shot at immortality we have.

• • •

An old friend conducting genealogical research recently discovered a photograph of my great-great-great-great grandmother. The photo intrigued me not just because it was the first picture I'd ever seen of Nancy Place but also for the few objects she chose to have set around her.

At her feet is an Irish setter. To her side are two porch chairs, used by her husband and she. To another side is a rocking chair, apparently pulled from the house behind her. Then there is an axe and a hoe, her husband's implements.

The objects form a sort of still life in which she is at the center.

I do not know of any tales about her setter, what she and my great-great-great-great grandfather talked about (if they talked at all) while sitting on those rocking chairs, have no idea what vegetables he took the greatest pleasure in raising. For that, I am the poorer.

But I do know much about what guided them through their days together.

• • •

The picture reminds me of an old painting by the Dutch master Jan Van Eyck, "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami." The painting serves as a wedding portrait of the Italian merchant and his bride, but unlike today's photographs of such events that show only smiling, perfectly groomed faces, it surrounds the couple with several symbolic objects: a carpet and slippers, a rosary on the wall, a little brush beside the bed, fruit on the window sill.

It is as if we are paying a visit to the Arnolfini home.

We learn much about the Arnolfinis through these objects. The fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility and the Renaissance belief in man's fall from Paradise. Discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage. Another symbol is St. Margaret, the patron saint of women in childbirth, whose image is carved on a chair back.

Art long has been a way to preserve a bit of our beliefs and personal stories. The pharaohs inside their tombs included elaborate paintings that told of their exploits. Archeologists use them today to create an outline of what life was like thousands of years ago.

• • •

Even today, high school seniors often select a prop that hints at their unique personalities: a basketball for the athlete, a musical instrument for the band student, a hat for the bohemian. Years later, a quick glance at the photograph shows classmates something far more than a youthful face.

Those who understand the power of image and what it connotes are keen to surround themselves or their clients with the appropriate prop and scenery.

Should there be any surprise that during the last presidential election George W. Bush and Al Gore wore virtually the same colored suit, always over a crisp white shirt, brightened only by either a power red or a federal blue tie? Or that those stumping for the new Homeland Security Department did so with an American flag or pictures of firefighters and police officers behind them?

In the age of television and the 15-second sound bite, becoming cynical about such iconography is easy enough.

Yet, we should not fault the image-maker any more than those who respond to such images.

After all, if we were not moved in some way by the pictures of saluting children and amber waves of grain, the image would not have been used.

Self-awareness of what evokes emotion and passion in us may be just as important as the ability to reason through an argument.

• • •

What five objects would you chose to be remembered by?

Most of us make such decisions subconsciously, I suspect.

A columnist from Sioux Rapids recently sent a family snapshot so her photo could run with the op-ed. It showed her, her husband and their two children sitting on a picnic table in a verdant backyard, cornfield and big sky behind them. Her husband, an army reservist, wore his military fatigues. One of the children had the logo of a recent NFL playoff team on his shirt.

It was just a snapshot, a quick family portrait taken with a Polaroid.

Or was it?

• • •

Gazing upon the grainy picture of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, I try to imagine what message she left for me from decades ago.

Was the dog a sign that friendship and loyalty were respected? Is the pair of porch chairs a symbol of fidelity and companionship that comes with marriage? Does the axe and hoe represent their constant struggle with nature to survive? Or perhaps they show the tools one needed to find a balance with nature in order to survive.

And passing the framed pictures of family in my hallway, I wonder what clues to my life and our times those images may hold for my great-great-great-great granddaughter.

I only can hope they offer the right lessons of life, should she choose to look for them.

(originally published June 1, 2003)