Friday, April 30, 2004


We'll walk in the mountains. We'll see our daughter present her dissertation. We'll support her as she goes in to defend it. We'll celebrate afterwards and call her Doctor. We'll walk in the mountains, oh, I said that, didn't I? You can't say it too often....

In the meantime, I'll leave you with all the usual, plus an extra (and extra-hearty) helping from Ivan Burgess's ECHO ECHO. It's like a blog, folks, except it's on paper, and he says some amazing things in his own fractured way.

See you May 10th.


APRIL 18, 2004, cont'd

I have spent Saturday night with my parents in Hampton, Iowa, and now I am headed west on Highway 3 towards Pocahontas and Highway 4 where I'll turn north for a week of Vagabonding in Emmetsburg.

I slow down as I approach Dakota City and Humboldt. A wild turkey flies across the road in front of me. I'm amazed: it looks like it's really flying.

I detour into Humboldt. The Chinese restaurant downtown is closed on Sundays. The library is closed. The churches seem to be packed full. What's a fellow like me to do? These are God-fearing folks and I'm just a fellow poking about. You can't go into a church and say "just looking" the way you do in a store.

I see that girls drive pick-ups out here in Iowa and they look like they know what they're doing. Take note of that, fellas.

West of Humboldt, atop a rise back from the road a little bit, one of those long-handled pumps, the kind that should have a tin cup hanging off it. It's an awful lonesome sight. I suppose the pump still has one end in the water as well as one rusting in the spring-time air. I suppose it would take some priming to get that pump to pump. Sometimes in life you have to give a lot to get anything.

A skunk dead on the road in front of a big empty farm-house. You can tell the house is empty because of its vacant stare, like that of a man with no friends and no prospects. That's what it comes to - everything crushed by something we don't understand in of a universe we can't believe.

In Gilmore City, grit pelts the windows of the car as if to say "Move along." This is another town I've mostly driven through. There is no longer much here to drive into town for. They hold onto what they can. I make a lap of what's left of Main Street - a tavern, a restaurant, the post office, the senior center, the library, Sabo's Body Shop. The churches, yes, the churches. The wind blows straight up Main Street, all the way out of town as far as wind goes.

It's as if the wind has got in under the rug of the world today. You've got to keep your head down. Anything you want too much will blow away.

These are God-fearing people. These are patriotic people with their flags blown straight out to the north today.

Pocahontas is thirty feet tall, she's wooden, she's standing along the highway at the east edge of where? Pocahontas, Iowa, another community holding on at the intersection of Highways 3 and 4. This isn't Palo Alto County yet, but we're getting close. The wind blows all the way through town, up Main Street, flat into the huge stone courthouse that brings the street to a T. You can hear the roar of the wind in the trees from three blocks away. The car sitting sideways to the blow of things shakes and shudders. Yeah, Pocahontas holds on. It is not as prosperous as you might like, but it's here. That's saying something in the rural middle west these days, where hard times start earlier, run deeper, and last longer than they do in the Republican imagination. These are real people out here struggling to survive, not some numbers on a balance sheet. I suppose you can't afford to see the hard times when your intention is to line your pockets with other people's money. George W. Bush tried to tell people in Des Moines, Iowa, that his tax cuts have helped them. It's a little disingenuous to say "my tax cuts have help" when the problem that many people face is finding an income to start with. I like "Outsourcing is good for America" almost as much as I like "We have to destroy the village to save it" (and isn't that coming back into currency: we have to kill the Iraqis to free them). Send more jobs overseas and watch the wind blow away some more of these communities. Declare a war, and when there is no one to respond to the call, they'll have to outsource the military. Oh, I forgot, they're doing that already. Eventually big corporations will have to destroy each other because they will have already destroyed us.

There's a Pizza Ranch in Pocahontas with a lunch buffet. I eat, drink soda, read my paper. Then I sit in the car on Main Street making notes. Tulips in front of Princess City Floral dance a crazy one in this wind. The sun heats the furnace of the day. I have to be moving along.

These are honest, staight-forward people here. A hand-written sign in the door of an empty place on Main Street says "Closed. Out of Business. Thank You."

I hope the window of the car cracked open and I am covered with dust and grit. How the wind flies. It's time for me to move on, I mean it this time. It's 1:30 p.m. Emmetsburg is twenty-six miles straight north, but I think I'll mosey through Mallard and Curlew on the way. Mallard is where I went to church and grade school. Curlew is where we lived, a mile south, a quarter mile west. The cemetery lies between them, St. Mary's Cemetery, where my brother Randy is buried.

Six miles north of Pocahontas impulsively I turn west off Highway 4 to drive through Havelock. It has been forty years, I suppose, since I was last in Havelock. The interval has not been kind to this community, either. Most of Main Street is empty buildings. There's Sandy's Bar, and the Havelock AmVets Hacker Post No. 39, and what? An elevator with a collection of rail cars on the siding near it. The Havelock Public Library. A feed store. Grit, and the wind to pick it up. Pretty soon even the grit will be gone. There will be only the wind.

Dammit, Tom, don't sit here bawling for a past we can never have.



This continues our discussion about "the construction of place," started in our post of April 28, and continued on April 29, in response to the article "A Case Study in the Construction of Place: Boundary Management as Theme and Strategy in Canadian Art and Life" by Gaile McGregor. I have been highlighting points of interest from that article and considering them from the perspective of my Vagabond in the Middle project.

McGregor lists "the less tangible means by which the pioneer creates a bastion against chaos - songs, dances, stories, games, communal food preparation." And McGregor speaks of "using the rituals of everyday life as a mediating device, to create community." A footnote adds that in Canada, community is "an essential concomitant of survival - both physical and psychological." Further, "the community does not (as so many American thinkers seem to believe) necessarily oppress individuals but rather that individuals come into being in and through the community."

While the frontier was pushing through the middle west, farmers and tradesmen may well have seen themselves as rugged individualists; even to this day, I think, middle western farmers like to think of themselves as their own bosses, answering to no one, responsible for themselves. Yet the reality, I believe, is that the middle west was built not by individuals but by communities. I think cooperation trumped heroism in this regard. Admittedly, the characteristics of an individual can season a community with that person's qualities.

It may be that even today in the middle west "individual" is a masculine noun, embodying the traits of some past male ideal. "Community," then, would be a feminine noun for us. Certainly, as the frontier pushed through here, women gave themselves quietly to the business of community-building, and community is what saved many of them from loneliness. Some of the women who didn't find community here died directly of loneliness: the suicide rate among pioneer women here was awfully remarkable. When you leave a family behind in the east or the old country and have no one to talk to for months on end but your tight-lipped husband and the wind, you may go mad. I know less of suicides among male pioneers; in any case, given their occupations, men could more easily disguise their deaths as accidents.

Because we as Americans never thought the wilderness encircled us but instead it rolled westward away from us as settlement pushed westward, we have less need (than the Canadians of McGregor's essay) for community to create a fortress. For the middle westerners, community didn't "save" us from the wilderness but from ourselves and helped to make life bearable. It was a haven not from the wilderness but from the harsh realities of the daily grind.

As McGregor's footnote suggests, there was an element of "community oppresses the individual" in our thinking. In this regard, one might look at critiques of our communities by such as Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser if he wishes.

My own position is that you can blame "community" for anything you want. You are gangly and awkward and something of a misfit, as Lewis was? Blame it on the community that you didn't fit in. I was gangly and awkward and something of a misfit, too, yet I've never thought the responsibility for that belonged to anyone but myself and my particular set of genes.

In any case, I think, how you see community, how you choose to see community, determines what it is for you, and what kinds of effects it will have on you.

If community only oppresses, in the middle west, why were the pioneer rituals of community - church meetings, summer picnics by the river - anticipated with such relish and attended with such glee?

I grew up beside a small community in rural Iowa. I don't think the community oppressed me. I think life oppressed all of us. Even in the 1950s, it was sometimes a harsh life. As a farm boy, I was expected to work hard. We all were. No one had it easy. If I was oppressed, it was by the crush of everything we had to do to survive on a half-section grain and livestock operation. If I was oppressed, so was everyone else.

If we could ask at our cemeteries about it, I'm fairly certain the consensus among the ghosts would be: moments of community were more often moments of solace than of oppression. Community, for many, was family without the blood-ties.



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Whenever someone mentions that I have a bald spot," Ivan says, "I always take solace in the fact that God is good, God is fair, to some he gave brains, to some he gave hair."

"Dwayne McGinnis," says Ivan, "was holding his head in his hands and moanin' at Paul's Cafe last Sunday afternoon. Dwayne was getting ready for the opening day of mowing season. He grumbled and growled and snorted about the fact that it took nine and a half dollars to fill his riding mower gas tank. He is danged lucky that the danged thing don't run on Gatorade. Then it would have taken close to forty dollars to fill the tank."

He adds that "with the price of gasoline what it is and everythin', if you see a shaggy lawn this summer, give the owner the benefit of the doubt. He might be, in his own little way, making us less dependent on foreign oil."

"Judy Hall and Mike Hughes are going to be guests at a noon luncheon at the Senior Citizens Center in Esbon," Ivan writes. "Hall and Hughes are going to talk about the advantage of Western Plains living [for the the elderly] and the actitivies at Western Plains. Hall and Hughes - sounds like an old vaudeville team. Maybe they should do some songs, skits, and snappy patter and some of the old soft shoe."

"Dennis Hansen has showed up at the Barnes Aerobic group, camera in hand, a couple of mornings," Ivan says. "Hansen is helping with a brochure that is being put together to promote Smith Center. One of the goals is trying to show retired people the advantages of living in Smith Center."

"John Boden's mom joined us at the As the Bladder Fills Club last Monday morning," Ivan says. "Mom is from Idalia, Colorado. Idalia has a population of 88. But it is only 30 miles from Wray, 30 miles from Burlington, and 30 miles from St. Francis, Kansas. So, you see, all 88 people are right in the middle of a lot of activity."

"I was gainfully employed last Wednesday. But I would guess that will be my last day of gainful employment. When you hire me you are hiring a fat, one-eyed old man who can't see, can't hear, and can't write so as it can be read. And this fat, one-eyed old man is also fighting a losing battle against senility."

"Judy Hall's maiden name was Rellinger," Ivan writes, "but it is spelled Rilinger."

"Is it true that Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, is the only city in the United States with an apostrophe in its name?" Ivan asks. The answer is No. L'Anse, Michigan, has an apostrophe in its name. L'Anse is also my Vagabond community for Michigan.

"I drove out by where Frieling had his consignment auction last Friday afternoon," Ivan says. "A lot of the stuff had already been removed. What was left looked like old maid school teachers that had been stood up and were still waiting for someone to pick them up."

"The annual firing of the buffalo grass in Gene Conaway's lawn is a done deal," Ivan says. "Every year Gene burns his buffalo grass lawn and every year people will go tsk tsk tsk - he will just ruin the grass. But he has been doing it for years and every year his buffalo is plush, lush, and weed-free. Gene must know just when, just how, and just why to do it."

"Every time I drive anywhere or ride anywhere, when we stop and I get out of the car I'm kinda, I don't know just how to describe it - not really dizzy, just kinda 'lurchy.' I kinda lurch from here to there like a fellow that has had too many. Don't know what it is unless it is old age. It's a funny feeling that don't make me laugh."

"Here's something," Ivan says, "that I got right straight from the horse's mouth. On April 29th Smith Center will see the end of an era. For it is on that date, April 29, that the Weltmer Livestock Auction will hold their last sale. I mean their last sale forever, as far as Dick Weltmer is concerned. Dick said that the Sale Barn Cafe would remain open. Smith Center without a livestock auction? Just don't seem possible. The Chance brothers, Skin and Red, built the sale barn back in the middle '30s."

"The way my knees, ankles, hips, and shoulders hurt," Ivan says, "I'm guessing the frost-free date to be somewhere around May 12th."

"Stay ahead of the posse," Ivan closes, as he always does.



My thanks goes out to the following for his recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:

#89 Phil Hey, Iowa

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