Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tears from Heaven

I woke up Tuesday morning with something on my mind:
This column.
I wondered what the heck I would write about this week.
I don’t get stuck too often, but I had been struggling for a topic, waffling between some post-Father’s Day musings or an unsurprising commentary on the crummy weather we’ve been experiencing lately.
Neither exactly tripped my trigger for some reason.
The house was quiet as I worked my way downstairs. Last week, my wife hitched a roundtrip ride with some friends to North Carolina, where she is joyfully enjoying the company of two of our grandsons. My current housemate, Max, the striped-tailed cat, was still dozing on the front porch after an evening dodging raccoons and sparring with Big Taffy, his fat-cat nemesis from across the way.
It was, I figured, a good time to sit on the porch, sip a cup of coffee and glance through my morning Star Courier while I thought of something to say.
It didn’t take long.
The obituary page offered the news that two long-time friends had recently died.
Dave Costenson was a friend since high school, a happy-go-lucky, big-hearted guy who, back then, ignored the rule that said Kewanee guys weren’t supposed to get along with Galva guys and became a pal.
Ruby Lang was one of my mother’s bridge-playing buddies. She was a lot younger than mom, but she always enjoyed Ruby’s vivacious good looks, her upbeat outlook on life and her wonderful laugh; attributes I came to appreciate, too, as I got old enough to know better.
Both died of cancer.
Both died too soon.
“Why do people have to die? ” I said, startling Max, who had crawled into my lap and thought we were alone.
The answer is, I don’t exactly know. Neither does Max.
But I do know this:
I know that faith gives us an answer we can try to accept, even when it’s hard. And I believe that the life we lead now is only a preliminary for the life we’re getting ready for.
I think Coach Cos would go along with a sports analogy that goes kind of of like this:
Life on earth is just a practice session for the big show to come.
Work hard. Be ready.
And Ruby would probably agree that you play every hand you’re dealt with grace, joy and love.
But what about those who are left behind when a loved one dies? What about the spouses, children, other family members and friends who hang onto that person with an undying mixture of love, memories, tears and laughter?
I think it’s supposed to be that way.
I think souls are like kites that fly best when they stay connected--even by a delicate string--to the lives and loves they shared on earth. They dance in the breeze, beautiful and free and still a part of us forever.
I didn’t know how I’d end this story until a sudden shower broke the silence of my morning on the porch.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “Tears from heaven.”
Max looked up at me and I thought again.
“Tears of joy.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Drive through Diversity

If you’ve paid any attention at all to my written ramblings about our on-the-road treks, you know that, to me, interstate highways are something to be avoided unless you are in one heck of a big hurry to get somewhere important or, perhaps, in the event of a national emergency, like the kind President Dwight D. Eisenhower had in mind when he pushed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 into existence. Eisenhower was impressed by the German Autobahn while he was serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II and felt that a national highway system of our own would improve private and commercial transportation, plus provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troops in case of an emergency or foreign invasion.
And it’s true that we receive many important goods and services more quickly and easily because of interstate truck carriers, and it’s also true that if a foreign power was to invade, say, Iowa City, we could have troops there in a jiffy.
But while there are some advantages to a coast-to-coast, multi-lane highway system, there are things that I--and others--find less than attractive.

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the Interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place." - Charles Kuralt,

Our recent trip to visit son Colin and his family in northwestern Minnesota included a hurry-up drive via a trio of I-highways to get there, so I was pretty burnt out on four-lanes and truck stops when it came time to come home. A quick Google search revealed an alternate route that actually reduced the mileage, while adding little time to the drive. U.S. Route 52 starts at the Canadian border between Saskatchewan and North Dakota, then enters Minnesota as part of I-94 before meandering off on its own course in St. Paul. Some later research showed that the highway travels through ten different states, including North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Like many other old US highways, 52 travels through a myriad of interesting towns and areas that were once important byways, but now find themselves a little lost in the high-speed shuffle. The route I had chosen would work its way through Rochester and head south, cross into Iowa near Decorah, then wander southeast, following the Mississippi to its crossing into Illinois at Savanah and its nearby intersection with route 78 towards home. I figured we’d get a look at a few small towns, plus enjoy the scenery provided by the rolling hills and neat-as-a-pin dairy farms of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, not to mention a late-day glimpse of the mighty Mississippi in Dubuque and Bellevue.
We did. And more. And that’s where the diversity part comes in.
It was near a little Minnesota town called Harmony that we encountered something unexpected.
“I think we’re in Amish country,” said my co-pilot, who had noticed tidy farmhouses with working windmills and a lack of electric lines as her first clue. As it turns out, Harmony is the center of a large Old Order Amish area, started in the 70’s when a group relocated from Ohio. We’ve traveled through Amish locales before, but the Harmony group seems exceedingly successful, with mile after mile of small, prosperous-looking farms, with wagons working in the fields and buggies traveling along the well-paved shoulders of route 52.
“I guess they’re doing pretty well without offshore oil drilling,” she said.
And they are, or so it seems.
We crossed into Iowa and thought we were pretty well done with surprising sights when my ever-observant spouse turned to me as we drove through yet another small town.
“Was that guy mowing his lawn wearing a yarmulke?”
Postville, Iowa (population 1,478), seems an unlikely place to find a sizable Jewish population, let alone an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Lubavitcher community. It is, after all, in pork country, and the Lubavitchers hail from Brooklyn. But when one of them bought a failed meat packing plant and turned it into a kosher processing center, things changed fast. By the late 1980s, sources said that "Postville had more rabbis per capita than any other city in the United States, perhaps the world."
Since then, Postville has become a virtual poster child for rapid-fire diversity, with a population that includes the original Iowa townspeople, members of the Lubavitcher group and a sizable group of Spanish-speaking immigrants who work in the plant. It’s been quite a struggle over the years, with a story that’s included cultural clashes, government INS raids, bankruptcy and recovery. It’s a story that’s been recorded at length in books, the media and court documents. But it’s there, in Postville, Iowa, where the sight of men wearing beards, black suits and payos while discussing the Torah is as common as bib-overalled farmers talking about the price of corn.
“Wow, things have been a little diverse today, haven’t they?” she smiled.
And that’s the whole point of this backroads thing of mine. Because there’s a entire country full of lives and stories and differences out there. We just need to take the time to look, listen and remember where they are.

"Life doesn't happen along the interstates. It's against the law."
-- William Least Heat Moon, author of Blue Highways

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some Summertime Squirbs

Note to the uninitiated: A squirb is a cross between a squib and a blurb. Here are a few.

It’s summer. Or at least that’s what the weathermen say, as those guys have bypassed the hard-to-remember system of solstice-based dates with something more cognizant called meteorological seasons. With the latter method, each season starts at the beginning of a three-month period based on the prevailing temperatures for the time span. Summer, therefore, starts on June 1st, not on the 21st, and extends through August, with fall beginning, sensibly enough, on the first of September, and so on. I guess I haven’t been paying attention, because I thought this was a new-fangled way of looking at things until I did a little research and discovered that the Societas Meteorologica Palatina, an early international organization for meteorology, made this call several years ago. Like in 1780.
In any case, get out your shorts, flip-flops and Beach Boys albums.
It’s sum-sum-summertime!
I was hoping to spend this past weekend in pursuit of a personal holy grail.
Pie, that is.
We detoured through Aledo on Friday on the way to an errand in Galesburg. Some might say that Aledo is hardly on the way to the Burg, but the power of pie, in this case, at the annual Aledo Rhubarb Festival, made the sidetrip a no-brainer.
And there was, indeed, pie. So many choices from so many churches and organizations, that it was almost impossible to select my pie in the sky. The local Baptists finally won my business with a rhubarb-and-ice-cream combo that fit the bill perfectly. We had planned on yet another pastry-based event on Saturday, with the Elmwood Strawberry Festival beckoning. The weather alternated between muggy sunshine and sudden showers, and finally, after a hot, humid afternoon of gardening, we decided to skip it in favor of a ceiling fan, pizza and a rented video.
A good thing, too, as Elmwood nearly got swept away by a big-time tornado that wrecked parts of its downtown. Like Galva of a few years ago, Elmwood is establishing itself as the place not to be during periods of unsettled weather, with its second big storm in as many years. Sorry we missed the strawberry pie, but just as glad we ducked the wind.
I wrote a column called “The Lawn Mower Man” awhile back that mentioned the fact that I enjoy having the time to think, dream and even write (in my head, at least) when I cut the grass.
But not this year.
It seems like every time I need to mow, I need to be somewhere else, too. Or it’s getting dark. Or it’s starting to rain.
I bought a new mower this year, a pricey little self-propelled model that, unlike my worn-out wrecks of the past, actually does propel itself. It’s a good thing, too, because the speed-of-light movement required by my recent, unwelcome mowing style needs a machine with some real get up and go. My spouse/maintenance supervisor even mentioned it the other day.
She: Are you done with the lawn already? You were really moving out there.
Me: It was starting to rain...and I was supposed to be at a meeting ten minutes ago.
She: Maybe you should start wearing a number on your t-shirt. We could enter you in some races, even.
I’m glad I bought the mower.
We’re on our first big trip of the summer season this week, as we travel to northwest Minnesota to visit son Colin and his family. We could have spent time getting ready for the journey over the weekend, but got hung up on more pleasurable pursuits, like the aforementioned pie-fest and gardening, plus an alluring field full of u-pick strawberries. I was madly running errands on Monday in preparation for an extra-early start on Tuesday morning when I ran into a friend and mentioned we were heading out of town.
“Ah, that’s what retirement’s all about,” she said, referring to my wife’s recent departure from the teaching biz. “Just pick up and go whenever you feel like it.”
Uh yeah. Just as soon as I mow the lawn.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A River through Time

There are a lot of things I’d like to see, places I’d like to go, and things I’d like to do someday. I think we all have those so-called “bucket lists” in the back of our minds, hoping that someday we’ll enjoy experiences like hiking rim to rim in the Grand Canyon or a whale sighting in Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska or a Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage in Spain. I know, at least, that these are the kind of things we dream about in my house.
But this past Memorial Day weekend, it was the Skunk River, as it passes through Oakland Mills, Iowa, that caught our fancy as the place to be.
The Skunk rises in two branches in central Iowa, joining in Keokuk County and flowing southeast to the Mississippi below Burlington. According to the 1865 Iowa State Gazetteer, Shippers' Guide and Business Directory, “The Skunk River, or Chicaque, as the Indians called it (meaning polecat) is a stream of pure water, averaging about 100 yards in width. This stream affords the most ample water-power, sufficient to drive all the necessary machinery that may be demanded by the surrounding country for all time to come. Suitable mill sites occur on it at frequent points, four of which have already been improved, and have extensive saw and grist mills in successful operation, while others are in course of erection.”
The area we visited--and have visited for years, now--is called Oakland Mills, a tiny, unincorporated village a few miles south of Mount Pleasant, where I went to college.
Oakland Mills was the site of a hydroelectric plant built in the 1920's that provided electricity for the area for nearly 40 years before being abandoned. Now, the dam is used as a fishing pier on the Skunk, with water pouring over one section to create a fast-moving, muddy current that attracts campers, a few adventurous boaters and fishermen hoping to wrestle giant catfish from its murky depths. Located in a deep wooded valley, the area can be hot, humid, dusty (from the gravel road that runs along the river) and an excellent breeding ground for championship-size mosquitoes.
So, naturally, we love it.
Because, as is usually the case, it’s not the place, but the people that make for extra-special times. We used to meet college friends for Memorial Day “reunions” on the Skunk each year. Camping and cooking out in a large riverside lot, we’d share and compare stories of jobs and activities while introducing our growing families in a sort of rite of passage welcoming them to the clan. No, we did not require our children to walk on hot coals or undergo ritual scarification to become full-fledged members of the tribe, but certain customs and traditions were passed down, all the same.
“That’s where I learned to eat catsup on my eggs,” noted one of my sons. “And where to go if you’re going to the bathroom outside.”
Those probably aren’t the sort of cultural rites that will give anthropologists and sociologists something to think about and study at length in the future, I suppose, but they made for wonderful, funny things to remember and enjoy.
Over time, though, life kind of got in the way of our Memorial Day powwows. We didn’t completely lose touch with those friends of ours, but other activities, like school, sports, jobs, graduations and vacation trips muscled aside the yearly visit to the Skunk. We were happy to hook up with our friends for a visit just over a year ago, and happier, still, to make plans for a re-reunion, of sorts, near the banks of the mighty Skunk this past weekend. The old campsite is no longer available, nor is there as much mutual interest in sleeping on the ground. But one of us found out about a pair of cabins, recently built by the county nature park, high on a wooded bluff overlooking the river, that were just right. We met a new son-in-law and a newer grandson. We reintroduced ourselves to young-adult children who we hadn’t seen in years.
We talked and sang and ate and laughed.
And we learned.
We learned that some friends stay that way because that’s the way it’s meant to be. We compared some notes on the phenomenon of growing a little older, while enjoying how young we remain in our hearts and minds. We learned how little the essential values and beliefs that made us friends in the first place have changed over the years.
And we learned, I think, that we like being together and that we’ll do it again next year.
I hope so.
You see, I have some grandchildren I’d like these friends of ours to meet.
And I think it’s just about time they learned how to eat their eggs.