Thursday, March 11, 2004


The sandhill cranes have been back for a week and a half. We saw our first robins of the season, five of them, as we walked yesterday towards evening. I think that fellow in L'Anse, Michigan, was right: winter's back is broken!



Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Joe Hatcher's class in Small Towns & Small Town Living at Ripon College, Ripon, Wisconsin. This is the second year that Joe has invited me to be a guest speaker at the class. Last year when I spoke, I had barely started my expedition, I had visited only three of my focus communities. This year, I didn't have to say "what I'm gonna do" in the future, I could start talking about what I've found.

Here's the basic outline of my presentation.

~ Genesis of the idea for the Vagabond In the Middle: it developed out of working on my memoir about growing up on an Iowa farm. I'd wondered if the strengths and characteristics I was seeing in the people of Curlew and Palo Alto County were common across the middle west; and how would I prove that.

~ Defining the project:
- Mapping the area: my definition of the middle west starts with a narrow strip on the western edge of Ohio (roughly the 84th Meredian) and continues west to the 100th Meredian or where the Missouri River comes into South Dakota, whichever you prefer. On the north, it starts at the Canadian border. On the south, it stops about the 39th Parallel. I haven't found anyone with an opinion on the topic who agrees with me, but I stand by my rationale: it starts where the tall grass prairie once stood in western Ohio and stops where the mixed grass prairie turns to short grass exclusively.

- Selecting the communities: I chose one community in each of the 12 states that fall within the boundaries of my definition; they would become "focus" communities that I'll get to know better over the next five years. These communities needed to have: a newspaper that publishes once or twice a week, a public library, and a historical society. If it had some other claim to fame, so much the better - e.g. Rugby is the geographical center of the North American continent, Vandalia is the end of the National Road.

- The essential questions I ask come down to these: Why are you here? What are the current conditions and future prospects of the community? What are the three or four adjectives that describe the charateristics of the people of the community?

Then I read to the students from my notebooks: (1) pieces I wrote while driving to my focus communities; (2) pieces about the talk I've overheard in restaurants - see an example from L'Anse, Michigan here; and (3) pieces about the people I've met and interviewed - one from each of the institutions that Ivan Burgess of Smith Center, Kansas, believes is essential to a community's survival: good schools (Richard Lavik, former school superintendent, Rugby), good banks (Murray Lull, Smith Center, Kansas, president of the Smith County State Bank), and good medical facilities (Shep Sheppard, Smith Center, retired surgeon).

And, finally, I took questions, ones such as these.
~ Which community is the most interesting to you? They are all interesting, they all differ, and each gives me something the others don't. In addition, the biggest surprise: what started out as a research project turns into friendships. If I were an anthropologist, you might say I've "gone native." I think it is okay to love the part of the country you write about, and the people of it.

~ How is your relationship with the communities going to change when you publish the book? Th question was asking if I'm going to tell the truth and what will be the consequences of that. That's a question I have struggled with. How do you criticize those you love. I have promised myself that I'll tell the truth. My solution is to say "we" when I criticize, so as to include myself among those being criticized; and to use examples of my own failings where appropriate.

~ How do you support yourself? (1) Eight-six people have made donations to the effort; and (2) my wife keeps us in groceries and medical insurance, she keeps the wolf away from the door.

~ How will you know when it is time to stop doing research and put the material together as a book? In my experience, the material will tell you. When I visit my focus communities and start coming home with the same old thing, nothing new, that's a sign that I've gone as far as I need to, it's time to make it a book.

Ah, it was exciting to be standing at the front of such attentive students and talking about work that I love! Is this a dream job or what?



I was in Rugby in January. It was c-c-cold, 20 below zero for several days running. As I stepped out of my motel room heading for breakfast, so did the fellow next door. He had a piece of lathe with orange paint on one end of it; he was using it as a walking stick. He was wearing a pair of insulated coveralls. He said he was going to walk several blocks west along Highway 2 to the Rugby sale barn for breakfast at the cafe there, as he often did on sale day, Thursdays. He said if I liked good food in a place that wasn't very fancy, I should have breakfast at the sale barn too.

Turns out the fellow's name is Clayton Olson, turns out he is nearly 80 years old, turns out he is the father of Therese Rocheleau, the woman who operates the Oakwood Inn motel where I was staying.

I cleaned out the front passenger seat of my car to make space for Clayton and gave him a ride to the sale barn. He seemed a little reluctant to take it, as if riding were immoral when you could just as well walk. It wasn't that cold, after all.

Originally from Brookings, SD, Clayton re-settled near Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where he had farmed and where he still lives. He was staying in Room 31 at the Oakwood for the winter at the insistence of his daughter so he wouldn't have to cut and split wood all winter to heat his cold Minnesota farmhouse.

So Clayton was in Rugby, I was giving him a ride to the sale barn for breakfast, we were talking about books. He likes to read, especially Louis L'Amour novels. There's a fellow from northeastern North Dakota who also writes westerns, Clayton told me, "I can't remember his name, but he's no Louis L'Amour...."

The biscuits and gravy that Clayton wanted to order were all sold out by the time we arrived so he settled for hashbrowns and toast and sausage or bacon. I ordered my usual - two eggs, two pancakes, two sausage patties. I ended up giving Clayton a copy of my memoir, Curlew:Home, then later in the afternoon as I was talking to Therese Rocheleau she told me: "Dad must be reading your book already. He said you ordered the same breakfast this morning that you ordered on page 13 of the book."

We talked over breakfast, Clayton and I did, about the project that brought me to Rugby, my exploration of what makes us middle western. He enlisted the help of our waitress and others in the cafe to start a list of people from Rugby I should talk to. When we finally pushed our empty plates away, Clayton insisted on buying my breakfast. I don't like to try arm-wrestling the tab away from fellows like Clayton: I know that, while these old men no longer have the strength they used to, slyness trumps brute force every time. So I let Clayton pay for breakfast and I gave him a copy of my book.

When we stepped into the hallway of the sale barn, Clayton introduced me to the main auctioneer at the place, Ron Torgerson. I knew I'd write an essay about the sale barn someday, and Ron Torgerson would be at the center of it, so I got his phone number. Clayton also introduced me to a cattle buyer and farmer, Ken ("I'm a farmer first") Mattern, and I got his phone number too.

Then Clayton and I watched cattle sell for a few minutes. A younger fellow was doing the auctioneering early in the day, selling the less desirable cattle, the old cows and those not properly finished. "Watch those two buyers standing there at the edge of the ring, off to the side," Clayton told me. "When one of them makes a bid, he barely moves his hand." I watched. I saw a hand just flicker with movement; the fellow was bidding on the cattle in the ring. Another buyer - sitting front and center with a little bit of plank table in front of him - just barely nodded his head, just barely thought about nodding his head; he was bidding too. It was this flicker of hand versus that slightest nod til one of the fellows looked away. The bidding was over. "SOLD!" the auctioneer called.

Clayton and I went back to our motel, to get on with our respective days.



from Middle Ground (MWPH, 1982)

The place he lives still is somewhere between
our guts & our grieving. Only stones fill in
where hearts have been torn out. The wounds will close,
slowly; will leave these deep scars we can touch,
remembering him. He was larger than
we are, and his heart fit his size: he would be
the last to curse the wide curve of road
which took him, taking it. Instead, he would laugh:
"By God, didn't I finally meet my match."

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